Children who ask too many difficult questions of adults are often lied to. And after sitting through a 35-minute performance of Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” at the Yale Cabaret, the audience will surely leave feeling unsettled, like the adult who cannot answer these difficult questions. Even we cannot answer the questions “Far Away” asks of us.
With a sparse set and cast of characters, “Far Away” takes on a bold mission: It calls attention to human complicity with known evils. Joan (Laura Gragtmans DRA ’12) is a young girl, sent to live with her aunt Harper (Alexandra Henrikson DRA ’11) and uncle in the country. Unable to sleep at night, Joan sneaks outside and stumbles upon a horrific sight. She goes to her aunt, who tries to calm her with sickly sweet, impossible-to-believe explanations about the obvious evil occurring outside. The child asks question after question, and these are questions too probing, with answers too horrific to be soothed away by a lullaby.
Fast-forward in time, and grown-up Joan is now working in a hat-making factory, where she and fellow hat-maker, Todd (Chris Henry DRA ’12), craft absurd, Wonka-esque creations for the upcoming “parade” — not until the end of the scene is it revealed what the parade actually is: zombie-like prisoners trudging along on their way to be executed.
The final scene brings the play to its peak of absurdity, when Todd, Joan and Aunt Harper are embroiled in a heated discussion about the ongoing war — the cause of which is never explained. The war has escalated and does not appear to be stopping, and even the animal kingdom has become involved.
The Cabaret’s production falls just short of the true existential fear the play is meant to inspire. Though it hits upon some wonderfully twisted moments — like the slow, wrenching parade of prisoners marching to their death and wearing the fanciful hats Todd and Joan have just spent hours decorating — the performances are inconsistent across the play, despite its short running time. In the first scene, Joan is not played by a child, but rather by the same woman who plays the older version of her. Though she skips onto the stage with believable youthful energy and wide-eyed stares, she cannot salvage the first scene from Henrikson’s frenzied performance. The two lack a consistent chemistry, and Gragtmans’ utterances of lines like, “If that was a party, why was there so much blood?” don’t quite shock the way they should. Gragtman’s performance in the second and third scenes, as older Joan, however, is consistent and believable, and Henrikson delivers the final scene with an intensity and ardor that the opener lacks. Henry, too, displays a solid performance as Todd, but the real gems of the play come in several moments, attributable to director Flordelino Lagundino, when the audience can do nothing but marvel at the horrific undertones of the play. One particular moment is in the first scene, when child-Joan’s idyllic frolicking is interrupted by a series of images of bloody animals flashing across a television screen in the middle of the stage. Touches like this make the play well worth a visit to the Cabaret and guarantee that audiences won’t leave the theater feeling underwhelmed.
As Harper asks in the final scene, “Is this a place of safety?” the answer, of course, is an indisputable, resounding no.
“Far Away” is playing from September 23-25 at the Yale Cabaret on 217 Park St.
Correction: Sept. 26, 2010
The review of the play “Far Away” at the Yale Cabaret misreported the name of the play.