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A CurtainUp Review
Far Away

Far Away at New York Theatre Workshop

More than any other writer she has transformed the theater into what it needs to be: a gymnasium that exercises the imagination, shakes up the moral sense, stretches the spirit
--- London Times critic Benedict Nightingale, about Caryl Churchill
Caryl Churchill's intriguingly unsettling play now at New York Theatre Workshop is based on the much acclaimed Royal Court production Lizzie Loveridge reviewed two years. Her assessment and summary of the play and Stephen Daldry's astute direction remains valid so I will address myself to the American cast and production. However, in order to fully experience the jolting surprises in Churchill's brief but powerful nightmare fable, I would suggest you see the show before you read the earlier review.

Far Away is well suited to NYTW's penchant for theater that doesn't tread the path of the familiar and accessible. The presence of Academy Award winner Frances McDormand in the cast lineup has surrounded the New York production with considerable buzz even though McDormand is not your average glamorous movie star. As anyone who saw her in the Wooster Group's To You, the Birdie (Our Review) knows she is very comfortable in a show as distinctly "downtown" and unique as this and in being on stage for only two of the four scenes..

Ms. McDormand proves herself to be an ideal choice to play Harper. As you watch her trying to reassure the sleepless young Joan (at the press preview I attended, played with impressive assurance by young Alexa Eisenstein, who alternates the role with Gina Rose ) you want to be lulled into accepting her at face value -- kind, caring, ordinary as her rimless glasses and shapeless sweater. Yet there's the chilling and mounting certainty that this aunt has every reason to be as restless as her young niece and that she is incapable of providing the assuring comfort young children expect from adults.

Chris Messina, who seems to be establishing himself as a specialist in dark, gritty roles, manages to mix funny with awful as Todd. Marin Ireland is excellent as the older Joan.

The design elements fit the wide stage perfectly -- from the scrim curtain with its pastoral landscape, to the sparsely furnished living room of the first and final scenes, to the milliner's shop and Churchill's explosive take on a fashion show in which we see the hats created by Todd and Joan worn by real people (in this production fashioned by Catherine Zuber).

If there were any Britishisms in the London production, the directors have seen to it that none have been imported to puzzle American audiences. (Such deletions may account for the ten minute difference in length between the original and current production). If anything, America's experience with terrorism on its home soil, have made this nightmarish fable even more real to New York than London viewers.

For many people, even at less than an hour, Ms. Churchill's grim hell on earth vision will seem too long. The images of this all-encompassing war that exempts no animal or human , is hard to watch -- and even harder to forget. --Elyse Sommer

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Associate Director: Michael Sexton
With: Alexa Eisenstein (Joan as a child --at performance reviewed), Marin Ireland (Joan), Frances McDermott ( Harper), Chris Messina (Todd), and Gina Rose (Joan as a child-alternate)
25-30 unidentified actors appear in Parade Design: Ian MacNeil
Drop painting: Cobalt Studios
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Running Time: 55 minutes without intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street ( 2nd Ave/ Bowery), 239-6200
9/30/02-12/22/02; opening 11/11/02. Extended to 1/18/02!Tue - Thu @8PM, Fri @7PM & 9PM, Sat @3PM & 8PM, Sun @3PM --$55-$60. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 10th press preview

--- Lizzie Loveridge's review of the Royal Court Production of Far Away
It is like a person screaming when you hear an owl   -- Harper

Fresh from his acclaimed film direction of Billy Elliot Stephen Daldry has chosen a new play by Caryl Churchill to return to London's boards. There were those, and I unequivocally state that I am not among them, who felt that Daldry's venture into the film world erred on the side of sentiment or predictability. Well those critics can come and see Far Away which is as obscure and enigmatically puzzling as almost anything on London's Fringe. Caryl Churchill's last play Blue Heart which I saw at London's Pleasance theatre was about language with elements of surrealism, and parts of the play were very funny. Like Blue Heart, Far Away challenges convention in its content.

The play, running at just over the hour, falls into three acts, the character Joan connecting all three as a child initially and later as a young woman. In the first scene set in a cottage in the country, Joan (Annabelle Seymour-Julen) is a visitor to her aunt's house. She questions Aunt Harper (Linda Bassett), about what she has seen her uncle doing in the shed. As the child's questions probe, the aunt produces more and more elaborate lies to cover the uncle's violence and brutality. In the second scene Joan (Katherine Tozer), now grown up, is a milliner, making hats for a competition with another milliner, Todd. (Kevin McKidd). They flirt, compete as the fabulous hats are blocked and created. The extravagant hats are paraded by prisoners, chained together with leg irons, on their way to an execution. In the final scene Todd and Harper are at the cottage discussing a war which has encompassed the animals as well the nations of the world. Joan and Todd are now a couple and in a final moment of surrealism, we are told that the river also has taken sides in this bizarre Armageddon.

Daldry has given us a brilliant first scene, evocative of childhood, of things we did not understand, but that worried us as children. Throughout there is the purity of a child's voice questioning evil. Harper, the aunt, tries to reassure but in fact does the opposite as she lies, and as each element the child has seen, is revealed. The atmosphere in the cottage, the aunt's unease, the child's innocence are conveyed beautifully. The milliners' sexual banter is fun but in numbing contrast is "The Parade", a dreadful procession of starving, ragged people, brutally chained together but wearing "hats to die for" and holding cards with huge numbers. The shallow demands of "prisoners of fashion" are juxtaposed with genocide; the effect is searing. The final scene is like a flight of language, funny as the Latvian dentists take up with the crocodiles against the Brazilians. It is a game we can all play. The images are superficially comic, vicious butterflies and ruthless deer coming into the war but the end result is the earth and everything in it, turning against itself to the death.

I very much liked the portrayal of the aunt, Harper by Linda Bassett whom you may remember for her award nominated performance in the film East is East. Her matter of fact delivery of explanations to the child made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Daldry has discovered how to get good acting performances out of children and Annabelle Seymour-Julen, as the young Joan does not disappoint. She is upright, clear and direct. Kevin McKidd, as Todd, Katherine Tozer, as the adult Joan both of them artistically volatile, adept actors. We see their believable relationship develop in the workplace to the point where they are personally caught up in the war of the world. Tozer has a light touch and good contrast between her carefree, unquestioning milliner and the girl trapped in total war.

I wondered at first why Daldry had chosen to mount this play in such a tiny theatre as the Jerwood Upstairs when his talent could fill the Royal Albert Hall. However, I stopped wondering as I got caught up in the intensity created in this intimate space, so much so that I could not even take notes.

The designer has delivered a cosy cottage and accurate millinery work rooms with detailed machinery. The paraded hats are extreme, colourful using net and feathers, each one outstanding, but sick. When, in the final scene we see the adult Joan in dirty and dishevelled army clothes, we remember her as a child sweet and clean, in her white nightie. Innocence and experience.

Caryl Churchill's imaginative writing has found a brilliant director in Stephen Daldry, who, the night I went, was modestly checking tickets! If theatre's mission is to create images and moments that stay with you, then Far Away succeeds. Who could ever forget the desperate parade of the excessively hatted chain gang?

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Stephen Daldry

Starring: Linda Bassett
With: Kevin McKidd, Katherine Tozer, Annabelle Seymour-Julen
Parade A:Pip Al Khafai, Yosra Awad, Brenda Bercow, Ed Bennet-Coles, Gary Boyle, Olivia Brookes, Millie Cooper, Charlotte Daily, Peter Forbes, Paul Fuller, Elizabeth Hallifax, Michael Hallifax, Jon Hewitt, Dorothy Holmes, Leslie Isaiah Thomas, Julian Kinghorn, Susannah, Lampert, Juliet Lawson Roger Lewis, Michael Mariscotti, Rose Mariscotti, Margaret Metcalfe, John Rayner, Marion Tulla, Penny Tulla, Rukhsana Umar, Doug Waite
Design: Ian MacNeil
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Running time: One hours and five minutes
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 30th December 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st December 2000 performance at The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1
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