Review: Part Profound, Part Problematic, Burning Coal’s Production of Caryl Churchill’s Shorts Makes for a Curious Theater Experience

By Lauren Van Hemert

I love plays that are thought-provoking and question contemporary issues. I’m less partial to absurdist plays that are so enigmatic, they come off almost pompous. Burning Coal’s current production, featuring two short plays by Caryl Churchill, is both.

In the first play, A Number, Churchill explores the consequences of genetic engineering, nature versus nurture, science versus humanity. Ben Apple eases into multiple roles and personas effortlessly as Bernard, the cloned son of a madman with a God complex. Mark Filaci’s portrayal of Bernard’s deranged father, Salter, is appropriately restrained and chilling. Short scenes interspersed with video footage result in a piece that is both contemporary and engaging. It’s good theater with a social conscience, something Burning Coal does very well.

Unfortunately, the second play, Far Away, is so esoteric it becomes problematic. In this dystopian drama, there is something nefarious going on in the woods, and spoiler alert, it has little to do with lavish hats. Here production values and heavy-handed staging battle effortful performances by Julie Hall Oliver and Chloe Oliver. Where use of projections enhanced A Number, here they are awkward and even detract. Any attempt director Stephen Eckert has made to be innovative and experimental, just comes off disjointed and confusing, a disappointing follow-up to the polished and impactful first play.

This production is being co-produced by CAM Raleigh, and the museum presents an ideal location for the performance of both of these futuristic pieces. And while one short may transcend the other, overall, Churchill tackles some interesting subject matter which makes for a curious theater-going experience.   

Churchill’s Shorts runs through June 30th at the CAM Raleigh. For more information visit: https://burningcoal.org/.

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