BWW Review: Whistler in the Dark Fades Out With FAR AWAY
Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by Meg Taintor; Assistant Director, Melissa Barker; Creative Producer, Daniel Jones; Scenic/Costume Design, Kelly Leigh David; Lighting Design, Ben Lieberson; Hat Design, Cotton Talbot-Minkin; Stage Manager, Vawnya Nichols
CAST: Becca A. Lewis, Lorna Nogueira, Bob Mussett; Parade Crew: Liz Adams, Melissa Barker, David Anderson, Evelyn Cardella, Ann Carpenter, Sarah Gazdowicz, Todd Michael Hall, Daniel Jones, Ben Lieberson, Vawnya Nichols
Performances through April 19 by Whistler in the Dark Theatre at Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.whistlerinthedark.com
After nine years and twenty-nine productions, Whistler in the Dark Theatre is calling it a day, but the artists who comprise the company will continue their work in Boston and elsewhere, and not before staging one final play that will challenge their audience and showcase the Whistler aesthetic. Concluding their 2013-2014 season entitled "A Celebration of Caryl Churchill," in honor of the playwright's 75th birthday, the Whistlers are producing Far Away, a dystopian fable written in 2000 that makes George Orwell's 1984 read like a fairy tale.
Artistic Director Meg Taintor directs in the cozy Charlestown Working Theater, with the audience seated on three sides of the minimalist set by Kelly Leigh David. A utilitarian, rectangular wooden table is the focal point that the actors reposition for each scene, and a solitary chair and an oriental carpet (unfurled for the final scene) define a couple of locations. Beyond that, it falls upon the actors to ensure that the story takes shape and that is a tall order. Churchill's dialogue sounds irrational, but it has a rhythm of its own that begins to make sense when delivered convincingly, not unlike listening to Shakespearean speech if you're not accustomed to it. Time, place, and situation are not always clear (I had to read the play to understand a couple of major plot points), but Becca A. Lewis (Joan), Lorna Nogueira (Harper), and Bob Mussett (Todd) create fully-realized characters with their intriguing performances as civilian warriors in a world where all people and nature are at war.
Lewis belongs at the head of the class when it comes to portraying a young girl. Padding around in her bare feet and playing with the buttons of her feminine pajamas, she manages to make herself childlike and vulnerable as she discusses with her aunt the unsettling events she has witnessed during the night. Nogueira demonstrates the aunt's patience and resourcefulness as she tries to distract the child from the truth, eventually telling her just enough to satisfy the smart girl's curiosity. In subsequent scenes, years have passed and Joan has grown up and works with Todd in a hat factory. Lewis and Mussett are cute together, praising each other's fanciful hat designs as they develop a relationship and begin to reveal their secrets.
The colorful whimsy of the hats (designed by Cotton Talbot-Minkin) belies their purpose as head coverings for prisoners who are paraded on their way to execution. To the accompaniment of Nogueira on a hand held drum and Lewis and Mussett on pipes, a procession of four or five actors repeatedly stumbles through the stage, wearing more outrageous hats each time they cycle through. They appear alternately dazed or crazed, conveying an air of doom. After the parade, Joan and Todd talk about it matter-of-factly, more concerned with the disposition of the hats than the prisoners. More years pass, the war escalates, and, perhaps to reflect the insanity of the conflict, the madness in the trio's conversations intensifies, although they speak the words as if the content is perfectly normal.
Taintor has a talent for finding a way to stage challenging and/or strange plays, and the cast goes right along with her, stride for stride. These folks "get" Churchill in a way that I don't, but I appreciate the opportunity to be exposed to the work of this internationally renowned British playwright. She definitely wears her politics on her sleeve and writes strong female characters without diminishing the role of men. Far Away is an anti-war polemic which goes to absurd lengths to make its point, but then again, what's more absurd than war? Whistler in the Dark deserves a 21-gun salute as it marches into the sunset.
Photo credit: Whistler in the Dark Theatre (Lorna Nogueira, Becca A. Lewis, Bob Mussett)