Saturday, July 27, 2019

Dreamscapes of Mortality

Escaped Alone and
Here We Go


By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Robert Estes

Anton’s Well Theatre Company 
At Thousand Oaks Baptist Church, 1821 Catalina Ave., Berkeley

Until August 3, 2019. (Thursdays-Saturdays, with additional performance on Wednesday, July 31, all 7:30) 

By Christine Okon

Robert Estes, director of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, has chosen to produce two of Caryl Churchill’s later short plays "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" because they “so acutely chart our shared future.”

Victorian Skull Illusion

“Escaped Alone” brings to mind the Victorian image that shows either two women talking or a skull, depending on how it is viewed. Church presents a bifurcated reality of chit-chat among old friends against graphic descriptions of apocalyptic devastation and horror.

The audience waits in a small outdoor garden; there’s a waterless fountain and hummingbirds cruise the red flowers on the bushes.

Three women--Vi (Jenn Lucas), Sally (Jan Carty Marsh), and Lena (Susannah Wood) enter, sit down, and begin to engage in the ordinary, friendly banter of old friends. A fourth woman, Mrs. Jarrett (Marsha Van Broek), joins the group but seems uncomfortable. She faces the audience and describes an appalling and terrifying scenario of death, violence, and destruction; this is what the world has come to.  She then joins the other women in their conversation about daily routines, gossip, and pleasantries. All four sing The Beatles’ "Help," united in giddy familiarity with a tune from their youth until Mrs. Jarrett describes more horror, and the personal, bizarre crises of the women are revealed.

Sally is extraordinarily paranoid about her cat and is heading for a breakdown. Another talks fearfully about gunshots. All are traumatized somehow, yet they shift back into mundane chatter mode. To Churchill, images are visual morphemes to be interpreted as one would try to make sense of a strange dream.

Sound effects (e.g., meowing, explosions, or guns firing) were distracting and should have been used sparingly, if at all. Still, “Escaped Alone” reminds us of how easy it is to become inured to the global horrors we are exposed to every day.

Jenn Lucas & Jan Carty Marsh in ESCAPED ALONE Photo: Jay Yamada

After a brief intermission, the audience moves indoors for the next play,  “Here We Go.” The title alone connotes either enthusiasm or resignation. There are three scenes, each a study of the experience and reality of death and dying.

The first scene presents eight mourners at a post-funeral party chatting about their lives and reminiscing about the dearly departed man, who wanders among the crowd unseen yet wanting to participate. As each mourner steps forward to state how and when they later died, we are put on Churchill’s time-space continuum where past, present, and future are blurred, and existential finality underscores the most ordinary conversations.

Abe Bernstein in HERE WE GO Photo: Anton's Well Theatre Company

In “After,” a dead woman fretfully ruminates on death, dying, the afterlife and the meaning of existence but receives no answer. Words, even if philosophical, are empty in a vacuum.

The last scene, "Getting There," is the most moving and beautiful, with no words at all.  A caretaker in scrubs (Jan Carty Marsh) assists an old, frail,  woman (Alison Sacha Ross) in a hospital gown. The woman has long, flowing, gray hair, and she is tiny, almost melted away. Her body language denotes intense pain. The caretaker combs the woman’s hair and gives a sponge bath in a routine that is repeated a few times during the scene. Although the caretaker is simply doing her job, the patient relishes the act as a delicious, tactile respite from suffering and a moment of connection with another living being. When the caretaker moves across the room, the woman reaches forward in longing as if begging for the moment to last longer. Gradually, the caretaker becomes more involved and exhibits fondness, and the emotional intensity is profound and visceral. The two actors become one entity of empathy, and their interaction is remarkable to observe.

Both "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" are contemplations and meditations rich with images, talk, and the simple gift of presence, making for a quiet yet disturbing night of theater.


"Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Robert Estes of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Berkeley. Through Saturday, August 3, 2019. Info: antonswell.org



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