by Carol Rocamora
Wouldn’t you like a nice cuppa tea with your neighbors, dearie? It’s a warm afternoon. The comfortable chair set out for you in the garden is welcoming, and the company is so congenial…
Alert: Think twice before you accept this perilous invitation. After all, this is a play by Caryl Churchill, the most provocative political playwright of our turbulent times. And the benign brew that she’s serving is laced with a terrifying, apocalyptic warning that will send you out of the theatre reeling, after you’ve drained that deadly cup.
After decades of dark visions about climate change (The Skriker), cloning (A Number), dangerous political alliances (“Drunk Enough To Say ‘I Love You’?”), and total world war (Far Away), the remarkable Caryl Churchill is offering her most devastating prophesy yet on the future of our planet. Called Escaped Alone, it’s her latest, deadliest play, now running a scant fifty minutes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s one that creeps up on you, grabs you by the throat, and chokes you.
Four septuagenarians sit on lawn chairs in a sunny back yard somewhere in England, sipping tea, chatting happily about TV sitcoms, grandchildren and prices at the corner shops. The afternoon sky is bright blue, the birds are chirping, and so are the ladies. Their chatter is cheery, and their occasional ‘knock-knock jokes’ are diverting. They’re so lighthearted that they even break out into a carefree quartet of The Crystals’s “Da Doo Ron Ron.”.
Pretty soon, though, it’s clear that this scene is not so sanguine. As it turns out, Sally is obsessed with feline phobia to the point of paranoid dysfunction; Lena is agoraphobic and can’t get herself down to the corner supermarket: and Vi has a prison record for murdering her husband (“the kitchen knife just happened to be in my hand,” she explains.)
But that’s nothing compared to Mrs. Jarrett’s Cassandra-like monologues that punctuate the play’s seven scant scenes. After every cup of tea and group chat, she steps out of the cosy, framed garden scene onto the empty apron of Miriam Buether’s set, and into a frightening dark void. Alone, she shares with us a nightmarish vision of a planet suffering post-nuclear devastation and global chemical pollution, featuring plagues, starvation, auto-cannibalism, birth deformities, floods, fires, violence, insanity, dislocated cities, presidents committing suicide, and images of armies firing nets to catch flying cars, while pets rain down from the skies.
Have you had enough? Don’t worry, dearie, Churchill will shift the scene back to that comforting back yard, fenced in by a protective wall of denial, and all will be well. Or will it? Too late – you’ve already been served a lethal cuppa tea with an apocalyptic vision, one that only Churchill can pour in her sly and scalding style.
A stellar quartet of veteran British stage and screen actresses (Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson) lend both disarming comfort and frightening credibility to Churchill’s vision. James Macdonald, a masterful Churchill interpreter who has directed two of the above-mentioned plays, frames the searing scenes of Escaped Alone in gleaming red neon, as if to highlight their surreal normalcy and to imprint their warnings forever in our collective minds’ eye.
Is this a play about aging? About increasing paranoia? About a surreal, absurdist vision of the future of a planet in peril? Or all the above? As Churchill herself ages, her plays become shorter and shorter, and her warnings become more urgent. The question remains: to what extent will we – or can we – heed them?
Escaped Alone, by Caryl Churchill, a Royal Court Theatre production directed by James Madconald at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, now through February 26. www.BAM.org
Photo: Richard Termine