San Diego, CA---“Edgar and Annabel” by Sam Holcroft and Caryl Churchill’s 2000 “Far Away” are sharing a double bill at Ion Theatre’s latest foray into the different. Both women playwrights are British but their respective plays are as different as night is from day yet they mirror each other in a weird way.
The setting in "Edgar and Annabel" looks to be some Eastern Block country where Big Brother monitors, or better yet spy’s on political enemies, or better yet, anyone in general.
In Holcroft’s play, paranoia flows throughout with an intensity that is interrupted only by one great and improbable scene involving Nick and Annabel (Abby Fields and Zack Brown) and Tara (Samantha Ginn) and Marc (Jake Rosko). Tara and Marc come calling with boxes, bags (of groceries?) that for all intents and purposes are for dinner with Edgar and Annabel. In reality Tara and Marc belong to the same opposition underground party as do E. & A.
After a few niceties’ and some small talk about dinner Marc suggests a ‘sing off’, a Karaoke night. Here’s where the fun begins: In a scene so well scripted and tightly directed by Ion founding company member (making her impressive directorial debut) Linda Libby,
Tara and Marc with hand microphones positioned, volume turned up to blare start singing “Nothings Gonna Stop Me Now”. When they finish singing Edgar and Annabel hop on the bandwagon and blurt out Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”. It’s an absurd oddity that borders on the incredible. All the while they are singing they putting out and then placing together the components of a bomb hopefully to be used to disrupt an upcoming election.
By the time the four, working with precision, accuracy and speed complete the bomb, put it back in the box, put the apartment back together and leave with ‘mission accomplished’ high five, we know we have just seen a work of art in progress. These four actors deserve kudos for making what looked like the impossible, possible.
The play opens in their generic apartment (Curtis Green) with a counter, some cupboards, sink, fridge and the ever-present TV, recycling bin and table that becomes the center of Annabe and Edgar’s universe. But is it really an apartment for living or for play-acting?
Scripted to the gills by another of their revolutionary compatriots/ boss Miller (Robin Christ) is chilling in both pieces, but more on that later) whose sole purpose it is to keep the pair, whatever that looks like, on target. If any deviations change in voice patterns, nuance or subtext change the gig is up and the characters will most likely become suspect or better yet disappear as so many of their fellow co conspirators have.
It almost falls apart, when a new Edgar enters and startles Annabel. It is here that Edgar goes off script. Annabel has to do a fast recover picking up the pieces of Edgar’s flubs who claims he smells something good when he comes in the door, supposedly from work. “Is that fish”? “Is that fish”? “Marianne, “Chicken”. Nick, “Fish?” This goes on for a few beats until Nick gets the line.
Off to one side Miller undresses both Marianne and Nick for the screw up. Just recently five more anti-government conspirators were arrested by the police, and most likely will never be seen again. They were overheard joking and about the upcoming election just unlucky, according to Miller.
This kitchen scene and another set or two of secret meeting plays out more than once over the course of the evening with subtle changes in the script. As the chill between Annabel and her first Edgar begins to thaw begins to thaw, Miller questions their authenticity and orders them to follow script. It matters not that the opposition has a meager 28 percent following, or that people are disappearing by the hands full, they will continue as planned.
As Nick/Edgar, Zack Brown impresses with his intensity and passion. Abby Fields is steady and steadfast as Marianne/Annabel creating an atmosphere perfect for any Edgar character to jump into. Robin Christ’s hard edge leader/ take no prisoners Miller has just the right tone and Samantha Ginn and Jake Rosco create just the right balance and chemistry between reality and fantasy. All five, create an atmosphere that’s realistic, frightening and derisive.
Move over Alfred Hitchcock. Caryl Churchill’s thriller, “Far Away” matches many of Hitchcock’s mysteries as a cryptic, creepy dystopian thriller. Young Abby DeSpain, who recently won the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle 2013 Young Artist Award, is young Joan, whom we learn is visiting aunt Harper (Robin Christ) in some unknown place. She shows up in her nightgown to find comfort with her aunt who is rocking in her rocker. At that point I couldn't help but think of Anthony Perkins in "Psycho".
She confesses that she was witness to an awful happening that will affect her life forever. (DeSpain shines as young Joan and lives up to her every reputation as one of San Diego’s up and coming stars; her every nuance is deliberate and real.)
Her story is that she awoke from a nightmare to noises she heard outside her window. In order to get a better look, she climbed out onto the roof and then the branch of a tree to see what it was. It was then that she noticed and heard children crying because that were being beaten, put in cadges then wrapped in blankets and hauled off in a wagon by none other than her uncle, Harper’s husband.
No matter how hard Harper tries to settle young Joan down from the horrors she claims to have seen, by telling her what she saw was all for the best, the girl refuses to be sidetracked. She then proceeds to warn the girl, in a soothing voice, that what she found was a secret; something she should not know about and something she should never talk about ‘because if you do you could put people’s lives in danger”. The gory details of this mad scene, sets the youngster up for a rather chilling adulthood.
Fast forward fifteen years and we find the adult Joan (Rachael VanWormer) working as a miller in a factory. Her co-worker is Todd (Hanz Enyeart) an experienced hat maker. Both went to Hat College where Joan made a giraffe hat for her grade project.
Now they are equals standing side-by-side making outlandish looking hats some with animal themes, the purpose of which we learn later becomes a bizarre “March of the Dead parade; fancy hats on corpses being paraded through the crowds handcuffed at the wrists and ankles. Might that in some way represent victims/horrors of the Holocaust, something that would rattle our safe universe? Conjecture?
The play spans about five days in the lives of Joan and Todd, who at some point become friends or maybe a relationship. We see this develop when Todd is expecting Joan and Harper fears for her life if she returns to see him again. Better she should fear for Joan's sanity, but that would be too obvious. In the end it really didn't matter. The dye was cast from the outset.
But Churchill, whose plays border on farce and the absurd, veers away from realism and turns more toward the ludicrous and in a barrage by Harper, Todd, and Joan of (what many in the audience on press night thought to be very funny) wacky propositions about the end of the world, like ‘the cat’s have come on the other side of the French and they suffocate babies’, ‘The Romans used to commit suicide with a gold leaf’, ‘Latvia has been sending pigs to Sweden’ stream from them like rambling shots in the dark hoping something might strike a nerve.
I have to admit, Churchill’s play did not resonate with me, but that takes nothing away from the outstanding performances by the entire cast, many of who appeared in both plays. Libby directs with chilling accuracy in both. Aside from her acting talents, it looks like another feather will fit firmly in her cap as a director. Melanie Chen’s sound design and Karin Filijan’s lighting, Mary Summerday’s costumes add to the overall excellence and appreciation of Ion’s double bill.
For something very different chilling and thought provoking, Ion’s double bill should satisfy.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 29th
Organization: Ion Theatre Company
Where: 3704Sixth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: $29 - $35.00
Venue: BLKBOX Theatre