Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Escaped Alone

Caryl Churchill's brilliant, bizarre, puzzling, horrifying, and strangely sweet Escaped Alone packs the punch of a major dystopia into its lean 55 minutes. It also allows us to meet, enjoy, and maybe understand four 70-something women sitting and chatting in a cozy, distinctly non-dystopian, backyard.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson
Photo: Richard Termine

Part of the play is easily comprehended. Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) peeks into a backyard through a slightly open door in the fence and ends up spending the afternoon (or perhaps multiple afternoons) with Sally (Deborah Findlay), who suffers from an extreme fear of cats; Lena (Kika Markham), depressed almost into paralysis; and Vi (June Watson), who spent six years behind bars for killing her husband, perhaps accidentally, perhaps in self-defense, perhaps neither. Their conversation is presented as unfinished sentences and half-expressed thoughts that somehow paint fully dimensional portraits. It's verbal pointillism. Each woman also gets a monologue, unheard by the others, in which she expresses some of her deepest emotions.

The less easily comprehended part occurs when Mrs. Jarrett steps out of the backyard and into a empty black square, outlined in reddish lights, where she tells us tales of economic-environmental disaster. Is she predicting the future? Describing life on the other side of the planet? Sharing the plot of a sci-fi novel? Hallucinating? Warning us of what might happen if we humans don't clean up our act? Any of these interpretations would work, particularly since her dystopian tales are so clearly rooted in our life today.

Mrs. Jarrett tells of a whirlwind developed by property developers: "Some in the whirlwind went higher and higher, the airsick families taking selfies in case they could ever share them... Pets rained from the sky. A kitten became famous.” And, then, she tells us, “The hunger began when 80 percent of the food was diverted to television programs... The obese sold slices of themselves, until hunger drove then to eat their own rashers.” Also, "Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking." Churchill's picture of capitalism and greed gone amok is chilling, and it's also terribly funny.

The production, at BAM through February 26, couldn't be better. All four actresses are wonderful, and Linda Bassett's chummy approach to stories of complete disaster is perfect. Director James Macdonald makes an ideal partner for Churchill in terms of economy, clarity, humorous horror, and brilliance. The design elements are both completely integrated with the play and aesthetically pleasing on their own. I particularly enjoyed the subtlety with which lighting designer Peter Mumford matched and enhanced the play's various and always-changing moods.

One critic described Escaped Alone as a "minor late work." It seems to me a ridiculously reductive way of evaluating the play, which is a concentrated marvel. See it if you can.

[Note: I don't have the script, and the quotes in this review were picked up from various reviews, articles, and studies, so I can't totally vouch for their accuracy. I also suspect that the show was tweaked between England and the US, as quotes differed in the reviews.]

Wendy Caster
(4th row center; fabulous birthday present)

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