FEN: In Between Living and Breathing

Fen by Caryl Churchill, Whistler in the Dark, The Factory Theatre, 1/20/12-2/4/12, (in repertory with A Number by Caryl Churchill),  http://www.whistlerinthedark.com/productions/wantedsomething.html.

Reviewed by Becca Kidwell

(Boston, MA) A lone girl sits amongst the dirt and potatoes of this agrarian society trying to chase away birds until she can try no more.  Striving for more than mere existence in a world controlled by tradition and an inflexible economy often seems futile in the Fenland.  Whistler In The Dark compels the audience to exist and hope with the characters for something more.

As the women in the play sing various choruses to songs, one is struck by the pure beauty in these women in this desolate place.  One also struggles with the evisceration of these women as they give their lives and their souls to the land.  With the assistance of Danny Bryck and an enormous amount of concentration, the actors speak with the flawless dialect of the British countryside.  Each cast member plays multiple characters in this dark landscape.  The main plot revolves around Val (Aimee Rose Ranger) who is trapped between her obligation to take care of her children and a desire for a better life in London with her lover.  She takes no solace in the vices of the other local folk such as valium, religion, dreams, or masochism as she is constantly pulled in both directions.  The one direction that she would want to go in, to London and a new life seems millions of miles away.

Complete commitment to the character and situation draw the audience into Ranger’s performance and evokes a hope against hope that some way Val will find freedom.  Mac Young plays her lover who is torn between what is and what he desires and inevitably settles for what is.  His farm is being bought from him so that he can buy more farm equipment to work the land, to make his living, to remain on the land.  A 150 year old ghost would seem to be a strange vision (also played by Ranger), if it was not for the deliberate parallel between the serfdom of the past with the present (1980’s) albeit veiled serfdom of the modern economic model of farm-workers.  He accepts his life and his plight with a whimper, and unwillingly receives physical support from Val when he has given up.

Aimee Rose Ranger and Lorna Nogueira; Photo Credit: Whistler in the Dark

Lorna Nogueira’s transformation from a six-year old to a woman is so striking that it takes a moment to realize those characters are being performed by the same actress.  Becca A. Lewis’ characters range in age from a teenager to a ninety year old woman with each character fully realized and performed.  Her portrayal of the ninety year old woman contrasts sharply with the young girls and provides a tight connection between these characters even though the ninety year old woman only appears once in the play.  Jen O’Connor’s characters range from embittered and sadistic to strong and supportive.  As the stepmother of the teenager (played by Becca Lewis) who feels trapped in her life with little pleasure, her character finds pleasure in torturing and teasing her step-daughter.  O’Connor’s actions are so frightening that at first the initial shock has to wear off before one can even begin to “swallow” what she has to offer.  Anna Waldron plays all of her roles with authority whether as a Japanese businessman, a grandmother, or a supervisor on a farm.  Each realistic portrayal by each cast member adds to the fully developed and realized production by Whistler in the Dark.

The lighting and set design enhances the very earthly, very surreal motion of the play.  The lighting by PJ Strachman remains dim throughout allowing little respite for any of the weary travelers of this field.  The two walls frame the playground of dirt, designed by Mac Young, (which transforms into a hardwood floor for Whistler’s other play A Number) provides a working toolbox for all of the scenes.

In the hands of another company, Fen might just be a surrealistic pretention with little substance; but in the hands of the entire talent of Whistler in the Dark, Fen is a whisper and a heartbeat of the real, tragic Fenland. The journey—particularly as it has been staged by Meg Taintor—is touching, heartfelt, biting, ruthless, and completely captivating and worth the heartache it brings.

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