The plays of British playwright Caryl Churchill could be described as “complex” and “cerebral,” and her works are not new to the Triangle area stage. Tiny Engine Theatre’s 2016 Cloud Nine and Raleigh Ensemble Players’ 2008 The Skriker come to mind. Both of those productions left me impressed but a bit bewildered, and I will have to confess to departing CAM/Raleigh (Contemporary Art Museum) in the wake of Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of Churchill’s Shorts: Two Short Plays by Caryl Churchill in a similar state.
That is to say, I was impressed by the acting, the production values, and Stephen M. Eckert’s directorial choices for both plays; but I found myself having to work to make sense of Far Away — the second of the two. That said, I do recommend this show if a “thought piece,” laced with “black humor” and “dire dystopian warnings” is your cup-of-tea.
A Bit of Advice:
The information about characters and settings provided in the program is vital to an understanding of both of these works. Be sure to internalize these few facts as you wait for the action to begin.
A Number (premiered in 2002)
A Number addresses the issue of human cloning, its effects and its implications. In the first scene, we learn that Salter (Mark Filiaci) and his son (or, perhaps, we should say “sons” — see below) (Ben Apple) have just become aware that several clones of the son exist. In this scene, Apple’s character (the son) is clearly outraged, hurt, and frightened by the implications — he feels confused, betrayed, and violated.
Filiaci’s character is also outraged, and he is ready to sue whoever is responsible. But does the man “protest too much?” Is there a glimmer of guilt peeking out from behind the faÃ§ade? And why, exactly, do the “facts” keep changing? Filiaci appears as Salter in all five scenes.
On the other hand, although Ben Apple remains on the stage in all five scenes, he appears as a second character (identical to the first) in scenes two and four and as a third (also identical) character in the fifth and final scene. Very much to the credit of these two actors, we witness three very different interpersonal chemistries as Apple creates three quite distinct characters (two of whom are clones). (Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation might see parallels between the Bernard (B2) — Bernard (B1) dynamic and that of Bent Spiner’s two characters: Commander Data and his “brother” Lore.)
In the final scene, the play makes a statement about “nature vs. nurture,” about heredity vs. environment.
Phrases Provided as “Food for Thought”:
“[They] damaged your uniqueness” and “weakened your individuality.”
“I’m just him over again … I’m a copy.” “They said that none of us was the original.” “… the dignity of the human child.”
Far Away (first performed in 2000):
Beginning with a late night conversation between a frightened young girl (Chloe Oliver) and her aunt/hostess (Julie Hall Oliver(), a conversation that evokes images of The Holocaust, Far Away offers an answer to the question: “What if Samuel Beckett (of Waiting for Godot fame) had been inspired by George Orwell’s muse to write a fifty minute glimpse into a Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish dystopian society?
In scene one, young Joan (Chloe Oliver) has seen some things — with horrible implications — that her Aunt Harper (Julie Hall Oliver) eventually asserts she should never have seen. At first, Harper tries her best to sidestep the issue(s); but, after of a series of untruths, half-truths, and equivocations, finally counsels her niece: “You’re part of a big movement now to make things better. You can be proud of that.”
Scene 2 is several years later, in a hat factory where we are flies-on-the-wall on a series of four days as Joan and her co-worker Todd (Ben Apple) work on their artistic creations — hats for “the parade.” We learn that only one of these hats will survive as “the winner” and the others will be “burned with the bodies.” We also hear the pair talking about watching “trials” that seem to be conducted round-the-clock. And Todd tells Joan that they used to have two weeks to produce one hundred hats, but now the time has been cut to one week, and they may soon cut a day out of that. Are these hats parallels to a certain “crown of thorns“? Does the survivor who dons the winning hat somehow reference a certain Barabbas? Or, perhaps, a Judas?
Todd talks about corruption in the company that might extend to the entire industry, and he intimates that he might do a little whistle-blowing (even though it might cost him his job).
The third-and-final scene affords a reductio ad absurdum of how far we can sink if everyone and everything were to go to war with everyone and everything (imagine elephants as allies of the Dutch and a river that may or may not be on your side of the conflict).
What can one say but: superb? Apple creates four distinct characters, the Olivers create one each, and Filiaci creates yet another. None of these characters are wanting for depth or nuance. And both Julie and Chloe Oliver’s characters show evidence of their advancement in age between scenes one and two of Far Away.
Most impressive: Technical director Josh Martin’s projections on the massive screen behind the acting area. News/commentary programs on the screen precede the actual beginning of the first play. Stories and editorials about Dolly the Sheep (the 1996 first successful cloning of a mammal) flash in and out. There was also a fleeting reference to the 1996 film Multiplicity (in which the clones of Michael Keaton’s character, Doug, become increasingly poorer copies of the original).
During the second play, bottle caps appear as parallels to hats. Bottles are open (presumably so that the genie can be let out). Hats are placed on prisoners (who are subsequently “paraded” away) by disembodied hands (the “hands” of the government). At key moments it is possible to discern that the projection is a mirror image (because words are spelled backwards).
From the Department of Picky-Picky (and this one is quite picky):
Scene 2 of Far Away is divided into several mini-scenes between which the furniture was rearranged. These set changes were accomplished quickly and with aplomb, but I found myself unable to conjure up a justification for these shifts of the tables and chairs (and therefore wondering if the scene change might have been quicker and less “busy” without the re-positioning of the tables and chairs.
With both plays set in the near future, Churchill’s Shorts would be good fare for fans of science fiction. The twinbill runs through Sunday, June 30th, with 7:30 p.m. shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and 2 p.m. shows on Sundays.
SECOND OPINION: June 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9475; and June 19th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/churchill-s-shorts/.
Burning Coal Theatre Company and CAM/Raleigh present CHURCHILL’S SHORTS: TWO SHORT PLAYS BY CARYL CHURCHILL at 7:30 p.m. June 22, 2 p.m. June 23, 7:30 p.m. June 27-29, and 2 p.m. June 30 at CAM/Raleigh, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27603.
TICKETS: $15, except $5 Student Rush Tickets, sold at the curtain.
BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or https://burningcoal.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S6A000000sGAVUA2.
SHOW: https://burningcoal.org/churchills-shorts/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/2544782429139313/.
PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/Burning.Coal.Theatre, and https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc.
VENUE: http://camraleigh.org/, https://www.facebook.com/camraleigh/, and https://twitter.com/camraleigh.
A Number (2002 West End and 2004 Off-Broadway drama): https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/7620/a-number (Samuel French Inc.), http://www.iobdb.com/Production/3491 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1010035/ (Internet Movie Database), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Number (Wikipedia).
Far Away (2000 West End and 2002 Off-Broadway drama): https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/7621/far-away (Samuel French Inc.), http://www.iobdb.com/Production/1712 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Far_Away_(play) (Wikipedia).
Caryl Churchill (British playwright and screenwriter): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Caryl-Churchill (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/caryl-churchill (British Council | Literature bio), http://www.iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/5053 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/caryl-churchill-4702 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1135663/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryl_Churchill (Wikipedia).
Stephen M. Eckert (Brooklyn, NY director): https://www.stephenmeckert.com/ (official website) and https://www.facebook.com/SME89 (Facebook page).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.