Ion Theatre’s double bill — Sam Holcroft’s Edgar & Annabel and Caryl Churchill’s Far Away — combines one-acts that have so much in common they feel like deliberate companion pieces.
In Edgar & Annabel rebels plot to overthrow a totalitarian regime while reading from scripts and acting like model citizens. The government is so repressive it has multiple bugs in every home. Big Brother inspects every spoken word for dissent.
In a sense, Far Away begins where Edgar leaves off. We’re “somewhere in the future.” But what kind? A strip-mined post-apocalypse? Or just the stifling propaganda of Bigger Than Big Brother?
In Edgar repression comes from without. In Far Away the citizens are so brainwashed it’s etched in their genetic code.
In five scenes, we follow Joan from age eleven to maybe her late twenties.
The eleven-year-old sees strangers in a barn. They are rebels at a “safe house,” her aunt Harper suggests, preparing to flee the country. Okay, but then why are some being bludgeoned?
Jump 15 years. Joan makes hats for a weekly fashion parade. She’s brand new, yet hers are so inventive she might have the touch of a genius. In short scenes, Joan and Todd fall in love.
Skip ahead to a fog-shrouded parade. People wearing the hats and garbage bags — body bags? — drag themselves in iron leggings past applauding spectators. It’s clear they’re prisoners headed for capital punishment. But will the winner, a la The Hunger Games, live on?
The final scene is as ironic, and warped, as Edgar. Both one-acts offer extreme, simultaneous reactions: wacko humor, and a situation so life-and-death that one false move could stop the show.
A much older Harper rocks in her chair. Joan is late. Has the natural world, at war with itself and taking sides with different countries, done her in?
Harper and Todd - now Joan’s husband? — try to determine current friends and foes. Are birds still good guys? Crocodiles? Does Bolivia really control gravity? One thing’s for certain, the weather made an alliance with Japan. In which case could a drop of water have terminated Joan with extreme prejudice?
Has nature turned against itself in fact or fiction? Either chaos reigns, or government propaganda has become the new reality.
Churchill always gives us a choice.
Ion Theatre and director Linda Libby give Far Away an appropriate eeriness, but could bring out the surreal humor of the later scenes a bit more.
In both one-acts Melanie Chen’s sounds and music underscore scenes effectively. As does Karin Filijan’s lighting, especially the prisoner parade. Like the one act’s tragi-comic extremes, Filijan illumines the gaudy hats but keeps faces in somber shadows.
Robin Christ, a strident Miller in Edgar, makes Harper straight from Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby. As her head bobs slowly back and forth, Harper may have seen it all. Or is she merely telling stories to pass the time?
As young Joan, Abby DeSpain shows why she was the Craig Noel honoree for “Young Artist” for 2013. It’s easy to believe whatever DeSpain describes, and Rachel Van Wormer’s older Joan as well.
Taken together, Edgar & Annabel and Far Away chronicle the rise and domination of totalitarian control. That they are funny, and both are, may strike the eeriest notes of all.