Dystopian drama ‘Far Away’ offers disturbing glimpses of a world at war

News Image Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance presents Caryl Churchill’s play March 28-30, as part of Mnemonic Theatre Festival

By: Clarissa Shirley ’22  Wednesday, March 24, 2021 01:05 PM

News Image

Think of “The Hunger Games,” set in the world of “Black Mirror” — with perhaps the most ominous hat-making operation ever devised for theater.

That’s what you can expect from “Far Away,” Caryl Churchill’s haunting short play, opening (virtually) March 28 at Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance.

“The script is dark and unpredictable,” says Muhlenberg senior Marlee Schulman, who directs the play. “It feels right for the time that we’re in. We've had to read between the lines and we have our own interpretations. I think the audience will as well.”

This hour-long dystopian drama manifests a world where violence is imminent and nothing can be trusted, created by the Obie Award-winning playwright of “Top Girls” and “Cloud Nine.” A young woman must grow up quickly after witnessing a horrifying event in her childhood. In the wake of this trauma, she enters a career as a hat-maker, in which she becomes enmeshed in bizarre, elaborate rituals that have evolved around violent government repression. 

Provocative and disturbing, “Far Away” offers an incisive exploration of fear and tyranny in a dystopian — but uncomfortably familiar — world at war.

The second instalment in Muhlenberg’s semester-long Mnemonic Theatre Festival, “Far Away” runs March 28-30, and will be presented in a virtual performance, combining elements of film and live theatre. Attendance is free. Patrons can request tickets at muhlenberg.edu/seeashow.

Sophomore Nicola Ferro plays Joan, the young hat-maker. She says she has enjoyed working through the ambiguities of the script. 

“My character could have ten different backstories, and every rehearsal we’re looking to see which one we like the best,” Ferro says. “It’s been really invigorating to do such deep text work as an actor.”

Schulman says she has found her interest in film and television influential in directing the production, combining theatrical storytelling conventions with elements of mixed media.

“This production is very much a piece of theatre, in the way that we have approached the script and the structure of the play,” she says. “But there are filmic elements to it too, which virtual production has made possible. The digital stage has allowed us to get closer to the thought processes of the characters, which are crucial to this story.”

Then of course, there are the hats.

After a disturbing childhood episode, the audience next meets Joan hard at work in a hat factory, making elaborate and fanciful hats for some unknown purpose, which grows increasingly ominous as play progresses. Muhlenberg’s costume shop has been hard at work creating a variety of darkly funky headgear, as envisioned by costume designer Maxine Stone, a sophomore at Muhlenberg.

“I've been thinking of the hats as a distraction from what is going on in the world,” Schulman says. “They’re so exquisite and such a spectacle that they distract from what is happening to the people who are wearing them.”

The New York Times called the play’s 2002 premiere “ravishing, deeply disturbing.”

“It has the picturesque form and gentle rhythms of a fairy tale,” the Times says. “Each carefully chosen detail seems to vibrate with unsettled depths. And each summons anxieties both primal and mercilessly particular to the times in which we live.”

“Far Away” is the second production in Muhlenberg’s mostly-virtual Mnemonic Theatre Festival at Muhlenberg, running through May. Information on all seven productions in the festival can be found at muhlenberg.edu/seesashow

“Far Away” runs Sunday, March 28, at 1 p.m., and Monday and Tuesday, March 29-30, at 7 p.m. Patrons can register to see the show at muhlenberg.edu/seeashow.

About the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department
Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theatre program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theatre and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theatre and dance.

About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year residential, liberal arts college offering baccalaureate and graduate programs. With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences; selected preprofessional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health; and progressive workforce-focused post-baccalaureate certificates and master’s degrees. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, approximately 90 miles west of New York City, Muhlenberg is a member of the Centennial Conference, competing in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.