"I saw you looking at that fair boy's hat. I hope you told him it was derivative."
-Todd, played by John San Nicolas, in Shaking The Tree's play, "Far Away"
While not the most important line in this brief and intense play (playing Thursday-Sunday at SE Portland's Shaking the Tree theater company until September 22nd), it was a hilarious delivery and made the audience laugh. A lot. That's saying something, given the serious nature of the play--a dystopian (I looked for another word for this cliché but this was the best one) war piece with little in the way of pat resolution. (The "derivative" line was all the more funny to me, having worked as a silly hat maker for 7 years). The line was delivered during the second of three scenes and takes place in a silly hat factory where Todd is woo-ing Joan, whom we saw as a younger girl in the first scene. In that first scene, young Joan uncovers a dark reality--she is living in a time of world wide war and no one is to be trusted, even family. Although the specifics of the war are left vague, we know that Joan's Aunt Harper is involved, along with her husband, and that abduction, torture, and deaths are becoming common place. I saw the play twice, and found the following review in the Oregon Arts Watch website very helpful, in order to get a framework for the nature of the storyline and more information about the English playwright, Caryl Churchill.
Upon further investigation, I turned up this review in an online science fiction journal, of the play itself rather than a particular production. It gives an incisive look into one man's passion for the play and it's staying power. I strongly recommend seeing the Shaking The Tree production of the play before it closes. Director Samantha Van der Merwe's staging is incredibly fresh and creative, especially given that Churchill gave no stage directions at all in her manuscript. The four actors, Annabel Cantor, San Nicolas, Beth Thompson and Patricia Hunter, are all wonderful. The talented and experienced ensemble does an admirable job of delivering brilliantly Churchill's lines and insinuations about war, corruption, and brutality, infusing them with wit, mystery, and raw emotion. It is an intriguing and thought-provoking play, particularly if you have ever railed at the absurdity of war and it's trappings. Here's one of the most original moves Director Van der Merwe makes in her staging: she opens up the cast to local artists and community members who wish to participate as set designers and casting extras! What fun! She put out an open call this spring and summer for artists to make preposterous hats to be used in a "Spectacle March" during the September run of "Far Away".
My husband and I couldn't refuse and contributed an enormous dragon hat made out of a 5 gallon jug for the head and eggshell cartons for the teeth. The hat is worn by means of a bicycle helmet to which the dragon sculpture is attached. This outlandish collection of hats are then parceled out to a gathering of local folks who show up each night of the play's run. After choosing a hat to wear and being given drab prisoners' costumes, the "prisoners" parade through the play led by a surly drummer, cigarette dangling from mouth. The audience sees the fruits of Joan and Todd's millinery labor in action. Death marches dressed up with couture. No matter how artfully designed the propaganda is for war, it still comes down to blood and guts. Portland's small theater scene offers up some surprising and iconic gems. Get to "Far Away" before it closes for some dark yet tasty food for thought.