Saturday, April 19, 2014

A fond farewell to Whistler in the Dark

Photo: Chris McKenzie
It's rare that a closing night seems to open a hole in our theatre scene.

But that's the case with Far Away from Whistler in the Dark, the fringe company led by Meg Taintor for the past nine years, which itself goes dark after this production (which closes this weekend at the Charlestown Working Theatre).

And I think everyone understands the reason why. I've long argued that our larger nonprofit theatres - particularly those attached to our major universities - have abandoned the cutting edge of the drama. Yes, the professors have abandoned the intellectual; the Huntington is reliably middlebrow, and the A.R.T. probably counts as lowbrow at this point. So to find theatre for thinking people, you have to turn to the fringe - and more often than not, that meant Whistler in the Dark, which championed challenging work from the likes of Howard Barker, Biljana Srbljanovic, and Will Eno before these playwrights were well known in America. They also regularly produced the Greeks (o rare!) and scored a major hit with a daring aerial rendition of Tales from Ovid. Caryl Churchill, arguably our greatest living playwright (whom neither the Huntington nor the A.R.T. has ever produced), likewise became a specialty, with the Whistlers scoring penetrating productions of Fen and Vinegar Tom, among others.

And through its nine seasons the company developed a signature style - spare, smart, and raw - while remaining engaged not only with their audiences (to whom they offered pay-what-you-can pricing) but also the Boston theatre community (Taintor was a prime mover in organizing the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston).

But I suppose all good things must come to an end, and for whatever reason, Taintor has announced the closure of the company. Her final season has been devoted entirely to Churchill, and specifically to the minor works or rarities of her oeuvre; indeed, even though Far Away is probably the most substantial of these, you could argue that it's essentially a long-form sketch. But it's a sketch that conjures a web of disturbing ramifications, while never insisting on any single interpretation (a Churchill hallmark) - and so it serves as an intriguing introduction to the fragmented late phase of this endlessly experimenting playwright.

Of course Churchill has often toyed with questions of time and space in her writing, but this time she kicks out  the conceptual foundation of her script; indeed, by the end of the suggestively titled Far Away, we're as far away from "reality" as her characters are. The play opens with a midnight conversation between a frightened girl, Joan (portrayed, in classic Churchillian fashion, by an adult) and her soothingly authoritative aunt. Joan has just seen some sort of organized violence in her back yard - but her aunt assures her that nothing is amiss, that the bloody victims she glimpsed being loaded into a lorry were actually being "helped." Joan at first protests, but slowly accepts this explanation, and then begins to incorporate its cognitive dissonance into her nascent world view.

For the next time we see her, as a young adult, Joan has fully embraced the fabric of social illusion (again, an important Churchill trope), and is eagerly pursuing a career as a fashion designer in what amounts to a fascist dictatorship.  Her specialty is hats, and we watch as her bonnets, at first basic, grow ever more florid, as her skills increase - and as she banters with a fellow climber about the petty corruption of their industry. When we discover the eventual use of her creations - as decoration for prisoners being marched to execution - we may be shocked, but Joan isn't; instead she's merely miffed that her glorious hats must meet their end (along with their wearers) - although one, at least, has won a prize, and will now hang in a museum. (This inspires a po-faced meditation on the evanescence of art.)  We then catch up with Joan seemingly a few years later, when she seems positively unhinged, babbling about a world in which all of nature seems at war. She and her friends argue about which animals to trust (no need to fear the deer - "They've been with us for weeks!"), and worry that even the elemental forces of the world are now being "recruited." The Bolivians have been militarizing gravity, we're told, and the race is on to master darkness and silence as weapons.

Caryl Churchill - playwright or prophet?
Of course what has given Far Away much of its resonance is the accuracy with which Churchill, like a handful of other artists (Kushner, Haneke) predicted the paranoid strain in post-9/11 culture. Our denial of institutionalized torture, the accommodation of the police state in popular art, the way in which the world is now forever mobilized, forever surveilled, amid a "war on terror" which in fact terrorizes - these are all discernible in the folded dramatic bud of Far Away; the play is almost eerily prescient. But Churchill is after something a bit deeper than cultural diagnosis - she is clearly attempting to trigger something of the same destabilized sense of reality in her audience, to reproduce the state in which her characters exist. (Could the natural world really be turning against us? It seems more and more likely, doesn't it!)  Only she hopes to use the technique consciously, to illuminate the way in which ordinary people have been enlisted in the totalitarian, the way in which we have all eagerly signed up with Big Brother.

At Whistler, director Taintor's production certainly gets these points across, but so sparely that perhaps the play doesn't evince the spooky atmosphere it could achieve.  Deeper production resources might have made the parade of the damned more convincing, for instance (although in a nice touch, they're drawn from the audience, and Cotton Talbot-Minkin's millinery is awe-inspiring as ever). And while the acting - from Becca A. Lewis, Lorna Nogueira (both pictured) and Bob Mussett - is certainly detailed and committed, it doesn't quite conjure the claustrophobic sense that we're somehow watching only three people in wildly different permutations, at wildly different points in time. (So are we perhaps trapped inside young Joan's head throughout, as there's a weirdly childish vibe to much of the action? It's possible.) Lewis is the stand-out as Joan (particularly in her initiating scene) but even she doesn't quite convey her character's internal development from resistance to complicity - and then crazed advocacy.

But all this only underlines how much more support Whistler should have received over the years from the community - including the critical community (yes, even me). Inevitably the deepest resonance of this production is one that the playwright hasn't quite dramatized, but would have deeply understood - the echo that lingers after the silencing of a theatrical voice that has always spoken for sanity, clarity, and honest political exploration. The question that remains is - will someone (anyone?) take up the Whistler mantle? Who will guide us through the dark now? I'm hoping maybe the deer will.

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