Every year, many of the most genuine and interesting nights of Portland theatre are found in the city’s smallest spaces.
On a final perfect August night, moments before the main 2012-13 season kicks off, Shaking The Tree signaled that this tradition is alive and well by opening a terrific, taut 51 minute production (and perhaps something longer?) of Caryl Churchill’s FAR AWAY in their studio on SE Stark. Direction is by Samantha Van Der Merwe.
It takes nothing away from the first tier of big (SW) Broadway houses to note that the excitement, energy and especially the intimacy of Portland’s smaller performance venues is hard to replicate in the more established theatres.
And when the show is this good, there’s no better place to be than the front row (or couch?) of a close Portland space, elbow to elbow with an audience that could fit into one PCPA elevator and still leave room for the espresso cart.
From the opening moments of FAR AWAY, we know something is up. Young Joan (Annabel Cantor), staying perhaps against her will in what appears to be a country cottage with Harper (Patricia Hunter), has been seeing some things out in the barn that seem, well, a little off. After all, “If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?” Harper tries the “all is well” approach, but Young Joan’s not buying it and neither are we.
Eventually it’s clear there is a war on – or worse – out there. Countries and even animals and the earth itself must chose sides. But in this compact work we’re mostly in here, sharing space with four characters and their quotidian routines as whatever it is (surely nothing good) ravages the universe. Churchill cleverly probes the microscopic to suggest the evil macro forces afoot.
Later on, Older Joan (Beth Thompson) and Todd (John San Nicolas) work through the day in a hat studio, revealing tidbits of the ongoing Orwellian nightmare with pithy lines like: “I’m tired of sitting at home watching trials.”
Often you can’t do close ups in theatre. But when you are this close to the action, long wordless moments work well. San Nicolas and Thompson are skilled at infusing a tiny gesture or glance with an entire storyline you instantly get and thus don’t even have to see played out. They extract the maximum from a sidelong glance or a dropped hat. Both are in top form here.
Welcome to Churchill-ville. We’re in the land of THE HAND MAID’S TALE, of 1984, or Bergman’s SHAME, or THE STAND or any number of other dystopian tales.
Yet Churchill’s play feels as fresh as if she were the first to set foot in the genre. And when the mystery of the hats becomes clear, it’s a theatrical master class in “show, don’t tell”.
No one could accuse Churchill of being an optimist, but with this strong offering from Shaking The Tree to close out summer, the new season is off on a bright note.