In the not-so-distant forest, we could hear screaming.
“Is this part of the play?” I asked the seven or so people who were standing with me near the entrance to the pine grove, waiting to be escorted into Stagefemmes’ latest production, Far Away. All I got in response were a couple of nervous shrugs. The takeaway was clear: This was the first time any of us had attended a show like this.
The pandemic has forced theater groups at Kenyon to do what they do best: get creative. Stagefemmes is no exception, with Far Away’s director Anna Hampton ’22 choosing to stage the play at the top of a steep hiking trail, in the depths of the Brown Family Environmental Center (BFEC).
First published in 2000, Far Away is the work of acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill. Its loosely woven plot is carried throughout three acts, each a separate vignette, which slowly unveil a horrifying reality where everything in nature is at war. Unlike other dystopian stories, Far Away does not attempt to moralize or spell things out for the audience. Instead, it forces us to sit with our discomfort and confusion. In the cold, shadowy wilderness of the BFEC, this eerie effect was amplified tenfold.
Far Away started at 7:45 p.m., right at sunset. Darkness began to creep in as the elements of the story became more and more twisted. This was a brilliant directorial decision, even if it left me shivering in my coat, wishing I had brought blankets and hand warmers like some of my fellow audience members.
The set consisted of two separate, nearby locations, with the audience moving from one to the other between each act. Cast members Chameli Belk-Gupta ’21, James DiSandro ’22 and Sara Rosenthal ’22 performed impressively. Each line delivery seemed to escalate the show’s tension, building up to an explosive final scene.
The true highlights of the production, however, were the lighting and sound designs. Lacking the resources of a traditional theater, Sally Vogel ’23 and Cora Cicala ’22 crafted an atmosphere that played off of the natural surroundings. The stage crew adjusted portable lights throughout the run time, which they changed with the setting sun and the events of the story. The sound design was immersive, blending natural and artificial sounds to create a deliberately unsettling ambiance. The screaming I heard before the play began, which sounded part human and part bird call, is just one example of these memorable sound effects.
For all of the performance’s strengths, Far Away was not without its flaws. Those unfamiliar with the original play may have found this production somewhat difficult to follow. There was a lot happening at once, and certain elements, like time lapses and a particular parade scene, were confusing when they should have been clear and hard-hitting. Still, the cast and crew should be proud of their efforts; while the forest setting may have originated as a means to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, it turned out to be the perfect backdrop for one of the creepiest and most memorable theater-viewing experiences I’ve had at Kenyon.