Russ Hunt's Reviews

Yes, My Fuehrer and FarAway
by Brigitte Schwaiger (translated by Penny Black) and Caryl Churchill

Theatre St. Thomas
November 3-6, 2004

Surely there can't be a more challenging and uncompromisingly bizarre playwright working than Caryl Churchilll. When I first read the script for Far Away, I thought -- as I have for every one of her plays I've read -- I don't see how you can put this on and make it comprehensible. But, as before, I've been surprised. This is the fourth Churchill production Theatre St. Thomas director Ilkay Silk has mounted (Top Girls twice, and Cloud Nine once), and in each case I've been astonished by the way Churchill's powerfully rich and resonant -- but somehow unplaced -- dialogue has found a local habitation and, if not a name, a way of connecting with an audience.

Whether audiences unfamiliar with the play or with Churchill's way of proceeding will have seen all of the coherence between the three radically different sections isn't clear to me, but their resonance for the scary world we're all living in is unmistakable.

The sections, though they differ wildly in style, are connected in that the three characters recur in the different situations, and the strange yet familiar world in which they're set is increasingly but consistently bizarre. The first scene is a domestic-looking conversation between Joan, a young girl, and her aunt, Harper, with whom she's staying for reasons we aren't told, but sound ominous. Joan comes downstairs barefoot in her pajamas, to tell her aunt, comfily watching TV and reading on the couch, that she can't sleep. What seems at first a situation we all recognize gradually becomes a horror show, as Joan gives us, through her questions, more and more details of what seems to be happening outside -- children being delivered in trucks, beaten, herded into a garage, with blood all over the place. Harper tells more and more elaborate lies trying to convince Joan that what she's seeing isn't what she thinks, that it's normal, and finally, that it's okay: the children are being rescued and she's now part of a noble conspiracy. Apparently satisfied, Joan goes off to bed and Harper returns to her TV show.

Hilary Ball as Joan, and Karla O'Regan as Harper, make this scene chilling and poignant at the same time. Harper's condescending, cheerful, dimply attention to her niece gradually changes -- for us and for the character -- into something more threatening, and Joan's persistent, innocent questions and her wariness about her aunt are clear and oddly moving. There's a nice moment, for instance, when Harper pats the couch to invite Joan to sit next to her, and Joan perches on the arm.

In the second section, Joan (now a young woman, played by Vivien Zelazny), has just begun working at what seems like some sort of artsy hat studio. Todd (Stephen Taylor) is showing her the ropes, and putting the moves on her; she, for her part, is urging him to act on his suspicions that the way the company gets the contract for the hats is suspicious. It's not immediately clear what this is all about, though the conversation, an arch and often amusing parody of the way "artists" might discuss their "work," gives Zelazny and Taylor an opportunity to rekindle a little of the prickly chemistry they created last spring as Juliet and Romeo.

What we only gradually discover is that the elaborate and fanciful hats they're creating are to be worn by, and cremated with, prisoners on their way to execution for various unspecified crimes, and that there's a robust demand for these hats. In the midst of this we see a parade of prisoners in orange jumpsuits wearing just such wonderful and portentous hats, in a kind of parody of a fashion show runway. It's not clear to me why Silk presents them this way rather than as the beaten, ragged, chained prisoners Churchill calls for (in what is almost the only stage direction in the play). Perhaps the allusion to Iraq in the orange jump suits and the voices from the soundscape are enough.

The final scene of the play finds us back at Harper's house, and is made up of what must be one of the strangest conversations in dramatic literature. Todd is at Harper's, now Joan's partner, and on the run from what seems a kind of militaristic chaos suffusing the world -- or at least the world these characters conceive of and talk about. Everyone's an enemy or an ally, it seems, in what Hobbes called "the war of all against all." Not only nations, but groups of people, children, and animals, are seen as vicious enemies or strong allies. Harper has become (we infer because of this world's pressure) a hyperactive, staccato-speaking, overcaffeinated hysteric, obsessed by who's on whose side, and Todd is now a defensive, paranoid fugitive. Joan, who appears from what's referred to as a much needed sleep after her "escape" from something, is lost and desperate. It's in her last speech, recounting how she got to the house (which may or may not be a refuge), that we realize that it's not just the animals who've been sucked into this militaristic fantasy, it's the natural world too: she didn't, she says, know whose side the river was on. Funny and desperate, paranoid and resonant, the scene is one of those surreal fantasies whose elements stick in your mind afterward: "The cats have come in on the side of the French." "Mallards are not a good waterbird. They commit rape, and they're on the side of the elephants and the Koreans."

Silk has framed this complex play elegantly with five rectangular and oddly sized screens, on which a brilliant slide show (constructed by Jeff Crawford and operated by Megan Young with spot-on timing) illuminates and undercuts and counterpoints the action. Sets are composed of one focal item, centered below and between the screens -- a couch, a workbench, a chair -- and superlatively shaped by Chris Saad's lighting design. All of this is suffused with a soundscape devised by Michael Doherty, which includes a startlingly ominous and suspenseful, but measured and delicate, opening and closing piano theme, reminiscent of the score he did a few years ago for the TST Caucasian Chalk Circle. All four actors inhabit this space with grace and unbroken focus and, as we've come to expect from actors working with Ilkay Silk, impeccable ensemble.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the evening Silk has constructed is that the two plays are so radically different, presenting startlingly different challenges, and yet are so fundamentally connected, so pointedly about the same thing. Opening the evening is Yes, My Fuehrer, by the otherwise (to me, at least) unknown Austrian playwright Brigitte Schwaiger. It's an uninterrupted, coherent, one-woman meditation on life as what we might call a Hitler groupie -- an unreconstructed yet oddly appealing Nazi, troubled and yet blithely unaware of the depth of the evil to which she's devoted her life. As played by the experienced actress Tania Breen, looking convincingly fortyish in a cardigan and long skirt, with middle-aged hands and just the faintest trace of a German accent, she's a mesmerizing character, smiling sardonically at her own illusions, letting us in on her little secrets (the picture of Hitler she's kept and sleeps with), and expressing her oddly innocent opinions ("The Jews didn't want to work. That's why they had to go to camps, to learn to work.") and telling us how she "flourished in the camp." Somehow her survival, her triumph over an unhappy childhood and an inability to talk, gain our sympathy. "You could kill me for being a Nazi. Just don't laugh, don't laugh at me."

Like all three characters in Far Away, she's making her domestic way in a world gone mad, surviving as best she can, unable to avoid complicity in the evil pervading the world. To underline this similarity, Silk has put both plays in exactly the same frame -- the five rectangular projection screens with their counterpoint images, the one central focal point of the action (in this case a chair and side table).

In this challenging and rich brace of plays, Theatre St. Thomas gives us a kind of image of our own situation in this age, where we're told there are terrorists under every bed, perverts waiting to attack our children, where children are dangerous, and perhaps cats too -- but where we're also told to keep on shopping so the terror doesn't win. Maybe, Theatre St. Thomas suggests, it already has.

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