Actors and Stage Bloom in ‘Fen’


Taking the concept of grounding drama to literal extremes, a thick layer of soil transforms the expansive Open Fist Theatre stage into a bleak tableau of rural English farmland for the West Coast premiere of Caryl Churchill’s “Fen.”

The striking “flat earth” visual focus is shrewdly appropriate for a play set in a region of eastern Britain with a long history of controversy over the use of its land, and where the present-day inhabitants lead impoverished lives bordering on indentured servitude. As the despairing tractor driver, Frank (Russell Milton) puts it, the “people are dull and flat like the landscape”--yet he can’t flee.

Frank’s lover Val (Fiana Toibin), a farm laborer, still harbors dreams of running away with him to a new life in London. She’s even left her young children in the care of her mother and moved in with him, only to discover his deep-seated psychological paralysis is intractable even when he’s aware of it.


Without intermission, Stefan Novinski’s taut, hard-hitting staging traces Val and Frank’s descent into hopelessness. Churchill is no party girl (well, Socialist Party, maybe), and her merciless eye for the trajectory of oppression--historical and current--succinctly bares the roots of her characters’ despair, from exploitation by foreign landowners to an ineffectual local gentry to the hollow comforts of religion.

Stoically shouldering generations of unhappiness and violence, a single mother with a disabled child coos at a prayer meeting: “We’re all rubbish, but Jesus loves us so it’s all right.” Of course, we’re painfully aware that it isn’t all right.

In multiple roles, a superb ensemble comprising Tish Hicks, HepJamieson, Christy Keefe and Shana Wride grimly evokes four generations of townsfolk with conviction and pathos: young children consigned by ignorance to petty squabbling, adults worn down by back-breaking labor and elderly matrons too addled to keep their fading memories.

Donna Marquet’s inspired scenic design keeps the rustic setting in constant awareness as the performers slide carefully pared-down props onto the earth-covered stage as needed in a quick succession of brief but revealing scenes. Contributing much to the sense of visceral immersion is Drew Dalzell’s multichannel sound design, which encircles the audience with birds, insects and other sound effects.

“Fen” achieves a rare synthesis of performance and stagecraft that renders invisible the resource limitations of a smaller theater company in the service of urgent, socially relevant material. Highly recommended.


“Fen,” Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 18. $15 (Sundays, pay-what-you-can). (323) 882-6912. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.