By Sarah Downs
NYC is one of those lucky cities where you can walk down a side street to an old building, go down the stairs and back to a basement room with a cement floor and rows of chairs along the wall – and be transported to another place altogether through the power of art. I experienced that last night at the Iati Black Box Theater in the East Village. In that small back room the play Fen carried us across the Atlantic to England and back again in 90 compelling minutes.
Fen is a beautiful piece of writing that tells of love, loss and longing. Sensitively presented in this excellent production by a talented ensemble of actors, the play comes to life in an evening of well-wrought storytelling.
Tracing the lives of myriad characters on an expansive landscape but within the confines of limited space presents unique challenges to a director, but Patricia Lynn has wisely chosen to make a virtue of necessity. With five metal wash buckets, one table and two chairs she expertly transforms the plain theater space into the equally barren area of drained swampland in England known as the Fens. This isn’t sunny Cornwall or the Lake District. No. It’s the kind of place that would make Thomas Hardy‘s miserable landscapes look positively cheerful. In the Fens, on reclaimed land that yields its bounty only after putting up a fight, the class divide is alive and well. Women eke out a living gathering potatoes, or onions, or even stones in a life of perpetual drudgery.
Caryl Churchill has mined this life for stories of heartbreak and hope. A young woman has left her husband to be with her lover, wrestling with the pain of leaving her two daughters behind. A woman abuses her stepdaughter in a vain, desperate and terrifying attempt to pierce the numbness in her own soul. A man struggles over the decision to sell his family land in order to afford continuing to work it. People try to escape, through drink or religion or a desperate run toward the horizon. The touching through line of the love story guides us through the tapestry of overlapping lives, to an unexpected denouement.
There is not a weak link in this production. The actors are wonderful — interesting, vulnerable, unique, strong — and their accents are spot-on. Secure in their craft, they have committed to clear choices for each of the many characters they play. The minimal set, the use and re-use of simple props and the iconic costuming sketch life in the Fens in an instant. With the simple change of a headband a woman can become a little girl. The quick donning of a sweater and that girl is woman again, singing in church or collecting potatoes for a pittance. Uncomplicated lighting easily defines playing space in bright unflinching colorless sunlight, alternating with shades of blue that evoke quiet and mystery. And as the play ends, forced to return to reality we are serenaded by what is to me an unexpected and very welcome musical choice that made absolute sense the moment I heard the first note.
From start to finish, this is great theater that speaks to the individual experience of sadness, of dreams, of hope, leaving indelible images that remain with you long after you have left the building.
Fen, written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Patricia Lynn.
Featuring: Annie Harper Branson, Katie Consamus, Lauren Lubow, Aimee Rose Ranger, Rudi Utter and Lizzi Vieh.
Assistant direction by Michael Witkes; lighting design by Sarah Stolnack; sound design by Marc Jablonski; costume design by Patricia Lynn; dialect coaching by Lizzie King-Hall; fight choreography by Rudi Utter. Run time 90 minutes with no intermission.
Presented by Red Garnet Theater Company Producing Artistic Director: Lauren Lubow; Associate Producer: Annie Branson, at the Iati Theater Black Box, 64 East 4th St., Feb. 11th – 20th at 8:00 p.m., Feb. 14th and 21st and 3:00 p.m. Tickets $18, available at www.redgarnettheatercompany.org