by Michael Bowen

She's a radical feminist and socialist; he's the one who writes plays with people stuck inside trashcans. They're both difficult and obscure.

Oh goodness, "An Evening of Avant-Garde Theater" with Caryl Churchill and Samuel Beckett: non-existent plots, women in rocking chairs blathering on about one dreary thing or another. Sounds about as stimulating as an Episcopalian funeral sermon.

But entertainment isn't required to be of the roller coaster variety. The three short plays at the Civic's Studio Theater (through Feb. 19) offer the attraction of philosophical and political problems. Yet by asking about our complicity in the devastation of the environment, about the simple fact of our cruelty to others, this avant-garde adventure will still furrow more than a few high brows.

The first scene of Churchill's Far Away (2000) is straightforward enough, if disturbing: A girl, teddy bear in hand, can't sleep late one night and comes downstairs to question her aunt about some strange goings-on out in the backyard. Turns out the little girl (Mary Ormsby, a local sixth-grader) is relentless, and that her aunt (Audry Runcorn) clearly has something to hide. To good effect, Ormsby combines an irritating voice with a scowling expression: Turning tables on the authority figure, she becomes a relentless interrogator. Watch Runcorn differentiate among subtle evasions, bald-faced lies and the momentary fear of being found out. And it was a nice touch by director Stuart McKenzie to have characters run their fingers along the sharp edges of household tools while eyeing other people's necks.

The last two-thirds of Churchill's play borrow from the theater of the absurd. Two people (Thomas Olson, Heather Mikkelsen) construct progressively more elaborate hats while making everyday complaints about the oppressiveness of the workplace. McKenzie gets overly literal, however -- and undermines seriousness with unintentional comedy -- when, in one scene, he opts for a lot of screaming and the suggestion of an offstage "cauldron."

The third segment of Far Away, at least in the Civic's treatment, pushes for comedy at the expense of the tragic. The little girl who questioned authority has grown into an obtuse hat maker and then an activist in a worldwide war. For violence has become universal by the end of Churchill's play: "the cats have taken the side of the Koreans," and even Earth itself is beginning to rebel.

"The weather here's on the side of the Japanese" got a laugh on opening night -- with laughter a first step toward objectivity, exactly what Churchill is after. Exploitation and pollution can seem like necessary evils until artists interrogate them.

But after all, it's just a joke -- claiming that deforestation, over-fishing and global warming constitute some kind of warfare directed against Earth. That's just a ridiculous exaggeration. Isn't it?

Beckett's Rockaby (1981) consists entirely of an elderly woman dressed in Victorian black rocking back and forth as she ruminates in cryptic phrases about death. For the first half of her monologue, Sandy Hosking's delivery was too sing-song, skipping over phrases ("for another / another like herself / a little like") as if they were chirpy nostrums instead of Woman's longing for human contact. Eventually Hosking gained in intensity, chronicling a descent from something like "lonely woman dies" to "woman, gratuitously rejected by others, decides to end the cruel joke that is her life." In an existential moment, Woman decides to become unto herself her "own other living soul," extending a middle finger to a life that has offered only emptiness.

OK, so a cranky old lady dies -- happens all the time. But Beckett's ruminations resonate in the present tense: What is the cost of our indifference to others? Beyond the level of small talk, how often have any of us communicated genuinely with another soul?

In Footfalls (1976), a young woman named May (Lewis and Clark sophomore Kate Daniel, goth and brooding) paces back and forth, apparently on a deathwatch. Daniel has the look of straining bewilderment down, though director Maria Caprile undercuts several speeches by having them delivered at an angle, off into the wings -- instead of straight out, as in Beckett's meticulous stage directions. Moreover, the decision to pipe in the voice of Sara Edlin-Marlowe as Mother (who may be "unseen upstage" but is still very much heard, live) causes disruptions, as when Mother's echoing of May's very deliberate pacing doesn't even come close to being synchronized.

The three sections of Footfalls suggest a rough narrative. First, as she cares for her dying mother, May tries to figure out the meaning of pain. Her quest continues even after the mother is dead -- and even after her own death, when she (apparently) walks about as a ghost ... a forgotten one, unremembered even in the stories told after she's gone -- which is what the false consolations of religious faith amount to, anyway, Beckett seems to suggest.

But then Footfalls, as Enoch Brater has joked, is a play that has yet to be ruined by critics presuming to know what it means, and I don't intend to be the first.

Altogether, this is a thought-provoking evening (and, at 90 minutes, not too taxing), with the added benefit of talkbacks after every performance, so you can begin articulating what you've just witnessed.

Lots of shows fade quickly from the mind. But a child with a teddy bear witnessing brutality, and forgotten women pacing, rocking, renouncing life -- days later, images like those still hang around.

Publication date: 2/03/05

TPG Market @ Resurrection Records

Sun., June 13, 12-6 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.