Whistler in the Dark, ever the theater company willing to take risks, recently closed a pairing of plays by Caryl Churchill that they entitled “Wanted Something.” At the center of each play is a powerful performance: Aimee Rose Ranger in Fen and Danny Bryck in A Number.
Their work holds these plays together, keeping them from entering too much into bleak and esoteric territory.
Fen centers around a group of women in 1980s England struggling to survive within the confines of poverty and strict gender roles. Val (Ranger) leaves her husband for Frank (Mac Young), who, at his best, remains an apathetic man. Meanwhile, young Becky (Becca A. Lewis) has to deal with the violent machinations of her stepmother Angela (Jen O’Connor). Other women who work for Mr. Tewson (Young again) try to work through incredibly harsh conditions, while their boss contemplates selling the property, which doesn’t bode well for the workers.
The play is darkly bleak, providing no redemption or no hopeful resolution for any of its characters. They strive, they long, they push on, only to be met with more struggles and more strife.
Essentially, through the play we learn what exactly it is that would force women in dreadful conditions––both physically and emotionally––to crack, to finally find the breaking point, and the many ways those forces are beyond their control.
There is a wonderful scene in which three young girls sing a song about what they want to be in life. Cheerfully in unison, the girls dream of becoming hairdressers or nurses or housewives. That’s it. The song is deliberately satirical, as the girls seem to sub-consciously understand the limitations society puts on women. After they say, for instance, “When I grow up, I want to be a hairdresser, but if I don’t do that then I’ll be a nurse…or a housewife.” Repeat.
Fen is a play that features five women and one man. It seems rare to see a production that’s weighted so much on the female side that isn’t burlesque (not that there’s anything wrong with burlesque). And it’s doubly refreshing to see that the work is also so thoughtful.
At its core is Val. As played by Ranger, Val comes across as hopeful despite recognizing her own despair.
She evokes realism and optimism. If Val had been too naïve and cheerful, she would have seemed out-of-place; and if she’d been too aware of her life’s futility, the play would have been too depressing. Ranger keeps the levels even, sometimes with a simple gesture or a slight crook of her lips.
Each actor takes on a working-class English accent, and, for the most part, they succeed. There are occasional slips, but mostly they convincingly embody those types of people, which is very difficult to do. Credit is due to Danny Bryck, who was the dialect coach here.
Which is the best transition I’m going to get to discuss A Number, the second play of the series. The conceit of A Number is so clever and fascinating that I wish I’d thought of it. You know what I mean. While I was watching, I was actually pissed of that I hadn’t. I still might steal it (don’t tell anyone).
So, here’s the premise: Bernard (Bryck) discovers that he is one of “a number” of clones, instead of the only child he always thought he was. He confronts his father (Mark Cohen) about it, who at first denies knowledge of anything. After much talking, the father eventually admits that, yes, Bernard is a clone. The father tells him that his mother and the original son died in a car accident and that he (the father) wanted his son back.
Then we meet the original son. You see, it turns out that the original son never died. And the mother didn’t die in a crash. She killed herself and the father sent the son away. Each scene of A Number adds a new dimension to the story and to the running theme of cloning and nature of who we are.
Would having identical DNA of someone else make you just like him? Or would your environment contribute more to what you would become?
Danny Bryck ends up playing three different iterations of Bernard and the nuances between them all are part of the joy of watching A Number. These are three distinct people we’re watching on stage, each with their own sensibilities and their own complicated lives.
Bryck seems to understand how it’s the subtleties that make us uniquely us, how we are each the sum total of tiny things, and so he’s able to give us three characters without any big changes in wardrobe or makeup.
The directors of Fen and A Number––Meg Taintor and Jason King Jones––go for simplicity. Simple, economical sets which allow the characters to take center stage in the audience’s mind. We’re confronted, then, with the inner lives and outer turmoil of human beings. As directors, they really believe in the strength of the writers they chose and the actors they work with. As an audience member, I couldn’t have appreciated that more.