Imagine Franz Kafka, but without the joy and hope. You’ll arrive at Caryl Churchill’s Fen — a play as bleak as the landscape from which it is raised like the potatoes harvested by the cast of characters during the play.
The Fens are former marshlands in eastern England that were drained centuries ago and converted for agricultural use. Politically, which is why Churchill situated the play here, they are an area of staid conservatism where families have existed for generations often working at low-paid menial jobs for the same farming family and, as a result, have acquired a loyalty to that farmer.
Fen is Sarasvati Productions’ contribution to this year’s Master Playwright fest. The first thing one should know about a Churchill play is that it tends to be an applied blending of Marxist and feminist thought. The playwright has, however, developed her own repertoire of effects such as the fractal manner of distributing the multiple storylines throughout the play.
As the audience was admitted to the theatre, a young woman walked around with some type of clapping device which was apparently used to fend off the ever-present crows whose cawing never ceased, as if they were laughing at her futile efforts — definitely a metaphor for the futility of trying to eke out an existence in such a forsaken place.
When the play officially begins, a woman in the character of a Japanese businessman enters and begins to discuss the quality land available at the Fens and how much has been bought up by foreign companies as well as global corporations.
The floor of the stage has been strewn with straw in which potatoes are buried, to add a sense of realism to this otherwise surrealistic space. It does that, but it also raises dust when the lovers, Val (played by Livia Dymond) and Frank (Ray Strachan — the only male in the troupe), dance in the fields to celebrate their illicit love and Val’s leaving her husband and children to be with him and escape to London — which never happens. Persons with allergies might want to beware.
We are then introduced to farmer Wilson (also played by Strachan) who is in negotiations with a government representative to sell his farm to them and lease it back so that he can raise funds to buy machinery. This creates a double alienation for the workers, as the site of oppression becomes ephemeral — lost within the Kafkaesque maze created when the farmer becomes disinherited through the actions of his government, thereby joining the ranks of the oppressed.
All of the actors are required to play several parts, which is one of Churchill’s disorienting techniques. For example, the Japanese businessman is played by Rhea Fedorchuk, who also plays the parts of two children of varying ages — Becky, who is six years of age and Alice, who is a teenager being abused by her step-mom, also played by Fedorchuk, who additionally portrayed the crow clapper person prior to the start of the play.
Under the pretense of enlivening things, the cast resorts to song, such as the insipid ballad sung by the children about wanting to be “a nurse” or, at the least, “a hairdresser,” demonstrating that the aspirations of the denizens of this hell have been squelched to the point where they can only visualize traditional female roles for themselves.
A scene that does relieve the heavy gloom — through a well-needed bit of humour — is the scene where Val, contemplating suicide, is brought to a gospel revivalist group for salvation where they sing several old-time gospel songs. Val, however, decides that this is a sad reflection on the sterility of their lives, and leaves.
As bleak as it is, Fen certainly gives rise to some interesting after-theatre discussion, so plan on stopping for coffee or a beer afterwards as you try to sort through the convolutions of Caryl Churchill.
Fen runs until Feb. 7 at the Rachel Browne Studio (at Contemporary Dancers, 211 Bannatyne Avenue).