by JK Clarke
You know you’re in for a long seventy-five minutes when the opening scene of Fen, Caryl Churchill’s 1983 play (presented by the Red Garnet Theater Company through February 21) about a group of struggling female farmworkers, features a tall young white woman playing a stereotypical, wealthy Japanese, camera-clutching businessman in a way that rivaled (at least in accent and mannerisms) Mickey Rooney’s patently offensive upstairs neighbor to Hollygolightly, Mr. Yunioshi (“Mrs. Gorightry! I mus’ protess!”) in the 1961 Blake Edwards farce, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s an irretrievable moment, one from which it’s pretty much impossible to recover, though it’s doubtful this production could have fared any better even without that scene.
It’s a shame, really because Fen is not only an acclaimed play by a renowned playwright known for works about social and class struggles, but it has an important and compelling storyline. It’s an account of a group of exploited and overworked female farmworkers in the Fens (drained swampland) of East Anglia, who struggle to make a living in the bitter cold and thundering rain, harvesting potatoes. The tenant farmers for whom they work—themselves exploited by corporate landowners who buy them out at predatory rates—show no mercy, punishing them for physical or emotional weakness. Some of the women cope as they can, through cultivating leathery emotional exteriors, or by seeking refuge in Jesus; while others attempt to flee, like Val (Aimee Rose Ranger), who forgoes custody and leaves her daughters with their father so that she might pursue work, or more accurately love, in London. But to no avail. The dynamic is multiple tragedies waiting to happen at the behest of drug addiction, alcoholism or just general despair.
Churchill’s writing and story is compelling (to wit, it received high praise in its 1983 debut at The Public Theater), and full of potential. But it’s also complicated by so many different characters that it must be carefully presented in a way that differentiates them all. If not, the tension that builds to the penultimate scene—which relies on us getting to know a character well enough that we feel some kind of empathy toward her—dissipates and so does the play. In this production (directed by Patricia Lynn) the pastiche of seemingly innumerable characters who were undifferentiated in either costume or affect was only further washed out by unimaginative and too minimal props and set. What’s more, the actors’ mashups of unconvincing “British” regional and social class dialects lent further confusion to who the characters actually were.
It’s ambitious and risky to produce a play as complex as Fen. If it’s pulled off, it makes for a fascinating study of an unfortunate class of workers. But, as is the case here, not succeeding undermines the entire message.
Fen. Through February 21 at the IATI Theater (64 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery). www.redgarnettheatercompany.org
*Photo by Nicole Thompson