Delving into some dark disconnects in ‘Far Away’

Liminal - Some visual links prove elusive in this production of Caryl Churchill’s work

by Michael McGregor
The Oregonian, Wednesday, January 25, 2006

As an unabashed author of political plays who avoids didacticism by inventively reimagining the theatrical experience, British playwright Caryl Churchill would seem a natural fit for Liminal, a young company dedicated to challenging traditional boundaries.

A good example of her approach is 1999’s “This Is a Chair,” in which she sets scenes of everyday life against captions such as “War in Bosnia” to suggest the disconnect between our insular concerns and the graver issues swirling around us.

In “Far Away,” the one-hour play Liminal has chosen to showcase her work, she’s up to something similar. But here the sense of disconnect is darker and more complex, requiring strong visual ties to make the links between its disparate acts clear.

Inside a long, bare, loftlike space, Liminal director Georgia Luce strings together several arresting, often unsettling vignettes, but she hasn’t yet found all of those necessary ties.

Act one, the most realistic of the three, comes out best. In it, a young girl, Joan (played with impressive aplomb by Hallie Blashfield), complains to her aunt Harper (Jennifer Olson) that she can’t sleep because her uncle is doing something out in a shed. Her aunt reassures her with platitudes and, as the girl’s details turn bloody, justifications and lies. More disturbing than the uncle’s dark deeds are the aunt’s cheeriness and how easily she coaxes the girl back to bed.

In act two, a grown-up Joan (Madeleine Sanford) exchanges frivolous flirtations with a fellow hat maker, Todd (Jeff Marchant), while brushing off his claims that they’re being exploited. They watch their hats go by in a parade and celebrate when Joan’s wins a prize. What isn’t as visually clear as it needs to be in Liminal’s production is that the hat-wearers they watch are criminals marching toward their execution.

In the final act, a seemingly idle conversation between Harper and Todd (who has married Joan) turns absurdly disturbing as they reveal that the world’s creatures and natural elements are at war with each other. The cats are aligned with the French, the dogs with computer programmers, and the weather is “on the side of the Japanese.”

Into the middle of this conversation floats Joan, chanting about the horrors she’s seen in the world outside. What isn’t immediately clear in Liminal’s staging is that the innocent girl from act one has changed into a militant being.

Liminal’s spare staging, with video projections on a cloth frame and backdrops (of passing countryside, for example, to suggest the remote location in act one), fits the play well; Kollodi’s parade hats are works of art; and Christoph Saxe’s lighting includes intriguing touches such as erasing dark patches squiggle-by-squiggle to light a face or a body. The production needs a few more clarifying clues, however, to make it the show it could be.