Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Whistler finds its way through Fen

The subtle cast of Fen.
I suppose we'll never be rid of the minor female playwrights who insist we only think they're minor because of our sexism.  (I just read another of these screeds the other day; sigh.)  It's strange, though, how these types never seek to engage with the examples of the female playwrights whom everyone agrees are truly great - and yes, there are at least two: Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane, two Brits who made their respective names years ago (in Churchill's case, decades ago).

Sarah Kane, of course, tragically took her own life in 1999; but Churchill is still writing, if at a far slower pace than she did in her heyday.  She's in her seventies now, and overdue for a Nobel, IMHO.  Actually, I'm fairly sure she'll get that Nobel in the end; what I'm far less sure of is her ever winning the respect she's due from the likes of Theresa Rebeck. Which is a little odd, isn't it?

Actually, maybe it's not. For Churchill, unlike Rebeck, can be so difficult; indeed, sometimes she's almost relentlessly experimental.  Everything is on the table with Churchill.  And let's be honest - she's so feminine, but feminine in a strange, gnarly way - she's certainly "feminist," but not in the mode of Rebeck's careerists; indeed, she often interrogates the moral position of such women with a ruthlessly ironic calm.  (She's skeptical of her own gender's claims, particularly when they work against equity for everyone, in something like the way Shakespeare is skeptical of masculinity.)  That skepticism may be the one thing that unites her utterly disparate plays; beneath their wildly different surfaces, you can often feel Churchill questioning her own assumptions about her subject, scratching even at the very fabric of reality, trying to get under things, to comprehend them.   This sometimes leads to structures and modes so free-form that the audience can be left wondering, "What exactly it going on?"  But then that's the playwright's perpetual question, too.  "What is happening to us?" she keeps asking.  "What exactly is going on?"

Take Fen, for instance, which you might at first take for a kind of updated kitchen-sink drama about the lower classes of the lowlands of East Anglia.  The folks of Fen (particularly the women) are practically migrants - their land is literally being sold away from them beneath their feet - and their grinding lives all seem to lead to dead ends; the kids' biggest dreams are of being hairdressers (and they rarely make it that far). Indeed, one woman, caught between competing loves and duties with no seeming way out, becomes so existentially desperate that she ends up begging her lover to kill her (if he loves her, then he will kill her, seems to be the message).

Caryl Churchill - when does she get her Nobel?
But gradually, as we watch Fen, we realize that Churchill is up to something much deeper than some swamp-thing variant of Look Back in Anger.  Time and space have somehow come unstuck in this play; ghosts from earlier eras wander among the characters, and we ourselves cross over into the afterlife at the finale.  Or rather we hover in some plane in which past, present and future are interconnected and co-exist - which is rather how the playwright views her "action" in general, we realize.  After all, the very word "fen" denotes not just a marsh but a kind of miasma - to Churchill, it's perhaps a metaphor for existence itself, in which past and present intermingle in a peculiar kind of stasis, where meaning and even identity are basically fluid.  (And we're all trapped in that kind of fen, aren't we.) I know there's an oppressive history of this kind of metaphor being forced onto the "feminine," but Churchill seems aware of that issue, too; tellingly, there's a hermaphrodite in residence in Fen, a kind of bitter Tiresias taunted by the local kids - the girls, in fact.

Now this is heady (possibly pretentious) stuff, but in Whistler in the Dark's current production (through this weekend at the Factory Theater) director Meg Taintor does well by the tricky text, and conjures much of the play's eerie, questing grimness.  Like other productions I've seen, the show stumbles slightly over the unexpected murder-suicide at the finish, but elsewhere the ebb-and-flow of Churchill's many dramatic eddies is managed well - and some of these tiny-but-brutal vortexes remain just as shocking as they were at the play's premiere some thirty years ago (Churchill's clear-eyed depictions of abuse, particularly of children, have definitely retained their edge).

For her cast, Taintor has relied on many from the loose Whistler ensemble she has built up over the past several seasons, and the results are subtle, detailed, and quietly confident.  Most of these company stalwarts have worked together, and with this director, before, and it shows.  There are a few missteps here and there, to be honest; Anna Waldron's "Japanese Businessman" doesn't quite come off, and the reliable Jen O'Connor is slightly miscast as an abusive stepmother.  But both these actresses score in other roles (everyone has several), and there's generally fine work from Becca A. Lewis, Lorna Nogueira, Aimee Rose Ranger, and Mac Young (who also designed the clever set, which actually does double duty for Churchill's A Number, also in repertory at Whistler).  I can't pretend that Fen is everyone's cup of tea, but those attuned to this brilliant playwright's questing spirit won't want to miss it.


  1. Best use of the Factory Theatre's seemingly limited space that I've seen.

  2. I keep waiting for some larger theatre to snatch designer Mac Young away from Whistler, but so far so good - for us, if not for Mr. Young!