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From Pinter to Kafka: a descent into chaos

'Far Away,' Caryl Churchill's new play, plunges its audience into the nightmarish realm of human atrocity.

November 21, 2003|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

One sleepless night, in the near future, adolescent Joan (Laila Kearney) informs her aunt that something untoward has occurred outside. "Now what did you imagine you saw in the dark?" Aunt Harper (Beth Hogan) clucks. Her chipper facade conceals panic; she knows her niece witnessed an unspeakable waking nightmare. She dissembles: "It is like a person screaming when you hear an owl."

Thus begins the hourlong descent into grotesque chaos that is "Far Away."

Caryl Churchill's apocalyptic shocker receives a jaw-dropping local premiere at the Odyssey Theatre.

Controversy is synonymous with the ever-audacious Churchill ("Cloud 9," "Fen"). "Far Away's" 2000 Royal Court debut, directed by Stephen Daldry, left London observers cleft between awe and acrimony, and Daldry's 2002 New York Theatre Workshop reading divided the Manhattan cognoscenti.

Such discord seems inevitable. "Far Away" is a subversive assault on humanity's capacity to ignore its own atrocities. After the eerie Pinter-esque opening, Churchill segues into disarming socialist satire, via grown-up Joan (Shiva Rose McDermott). Now a state-mandated milliner, Joan and co-worker Todd (Jason Peck) make romantic noises while assembling oddball bonnets.

Where these creations are headed -- and on whose heads and why -- is the play's indescribable centerpiece and a bloodcurdling coup de theatre. The battle-scarred denouement pushes the dystopian envelope past retrieval, with all of nature in lethal revolt -- "Animal Farm" meets Tom Robbins' "Skinny Legs and All," sans hope.

Director Ron Sossi commands an emblematic execution. The playing is superb, with Hogan imposing, Kearney uncanny, Peck impeccable and McDermott unearthly, and all nine hat models are astonishing. Charles Erven's set, Kathi O'Donohue's lighting, Kurt Thum's sound, Kristin Hensley's makeup, Abigail Caro's movement and above all Carlos Munoz's headgear should win prizes.

"Far Away" isn't flawless. Churchill echoes Kafka without transcending the template. Her brevity is potent but impedes her reach. Yet, even while it polarizes audiences, "Far Away" stitches its chilling thesis into their unwilling subconscious. Indeed, indifference is impossible; to that, I tip my hat.

*

'Far Away'

Where: Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.

When: Wednesdays- Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., except Dec. 14 and Jan. 11, 3 p.m. Dark Nov. 26-27 and Dec. 24-Jan. 1

Ends: Jan. 25

Price: $20.50-$25; pay what you can Dec. 19 and Jan. 7

Contact: (310) 477-2055

Running time: 1 hour

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