What looks like a square bubble sits in the middle of the stage at Burning Coal Theatre. Three actors are confined inside. One plays some kind of card solitaire, another focuses on goldfish in a bowl, and the third relaxes on his back, randomly folding and refolding a white square cloth. It resembles a typical lazy afternoon, where trifling distractions pass the time.
Air, by the prolific British playwright Caryl Churchill, launches a seemingly rambling, disconnected, interaction among the bodies trapped in this space. In this world premiere, directed by Ana Radulescu, the three actors, Markese McLamb, Annabel Brunk, and Juliana Valente explore Churchill’s random dialogue both individually and collectively to create an expressive collage of emotions. Are they bored or trying to escape? Lonely or making a connection? What do they want? Like these actors, Churchill boldly pushes her audience to also interpret her spectacularly brief (approximately 15 minutes or so) and provocative narrative.
What If If Only, the second short Churchill play, also directed by Radulescu, clocks in at roughly 25 minutes. Written last summer and first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in September of 2021, this production marks its U.S. premiere.
The transition to this show begins with the lowering of a chair and table that were suspended over the stage along with the upper clear box. A man sits, talking to someone he has lost. Mark Filiaci’s grief resonates in his short, densely packed monologue that ultimately serves as a rich metaphor on reconciling the past and future. His lament is answered by the presence of Jenn Suchanec in a white lab coat, representing the future. She delightfully toys with Filiaci, parrying his inquiries about what will happen. And then she casually removes her lab coat, morphing to a more serious role, a representation of the present that now exists without the man’s beloved partner.
Churchill is known for stripping away most of the pillars of traditional theater. In Air, the narrative can be performed as a monologue or broken down and delivered by many actors. The script is a page full of words without stage directions or character divisions, so the director has the burden of divvying up the text, as well as determining what actions will support the story.
What If If Only does break up the script and labels the characters as Someone, Future, Present, and Child Future (rendered very seriously by a charming Cameron Lewis), to press attention on the language of the play. Churchill wants directors and actors to collaboratively unpack her work and render meaning from the surrealistic universes she conjures. Radulescu, her cast and crew, have accomplished those goals admirably.
Burning Coal deserves great praise for launching these two works in our community. While challenging to audiences, pondering and deciphering these experimental works lasts far beyond the brief 45 minutes in the theater.
The Burning Coal Theatre production of both of Caryl Churchill’s plays Air and What If If Only runs through June 26. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/.