There is a play that puts the women of an exploited underclass at the center of a socially relevant parable, and in doing so, makes a daring and incisive criticism of the ways in which capitalism plunders the environment and oppresses the female spirit. “Fen,” written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Mary Beth Easley, and playing in the Whitman Theater, is not that play. “Fen” might try to pass itself off as a clarion call for political action, but it’s more like an all-ages talent showcase with mood lighting.
And that’s a good thing, because while the book is fine, it’s the talented cast and confident direction that makes “Fen” such a powerful piece of theater.
The play is a series of vignettes following the inhabitants of the Fenlands, a region of rich farmland ninety miles east of London. We meet a total of 22 characters over the course of the evening, played by a company of eight actors; all but two of the actors play multiple roles. Churchill’s book isn’t especially interested in deep characterization (nor is it able to, what with the two dozen characters), so it’s a testament to the acting talent on display here that the dual casting doesn’t feel like a cheap gimmick. There’s no real reason that Deb the bratty 6-year-old and Angela the abusive stepmother should be played by the same actress, and yet, seeing Ashley Renee Thaxton give two totally distinct performances with nothing in common beyond their gut-bustingly hilarity, it’s impossible to imagine the show any other way.
If the show has a protagonist, it’s Val (Renée Floresca), who abandons her job in the Fens to pursue a life with her paramour Frank (Fito Alvarado). Val’s desire to escape the cruel reality of life in the Fens by any means necessary (be it romance, religion or suicide) is at the heart of the play, and Floresca’s performance strikes the perfect balance between hope and despair.
But maybe the real star of “Fen” is the Fen itself. While the edges of the stage are wood plank platforms, the bulk of the play’s action takes place in a dirt-filled pit. Just like the human actors, the dirt gives a double duty performance; wooden planks lift up to become cupboards, cages, dartboards, whatever the scene calls for. The stage is minimal enough and the lights dim enough that the Fen can be wherever or whatever you want it to be. As the play drudges towards its conclusion, the Fens stop feeling like a real place and start feeling like a purgatory. In the final scene, the characters shuffle onstage like ghosts, and the audience is totally spellbound as the lights glare on the nightmarish tableau.
If the show doesn’t work as (to quote the theater department’s brochure) “a parable for our times, where multinational corporations rape and reap the rewards of the land, while workers stay bound to the soil,” well…we can forgive that.