Burning Coal has once again teamed up with the downtown venue, the Contemporary Art Museum, to bring us two very contemporary but vastly different one-acts by Caryl Churchill, which they have labeled Churchill’s Shorts. Caryl Churchill is a British playwright with 49 plays to date to her credit. Born in 1938, she and her family moved to Canada when she was ten; she returned to England to attend the Women’s College at Oxford University where her first four plays were performed by student troupes. She lives in East London with her husband.

Churchill very early on began to shun the realistic style of play for the more modern, post realistic style. She has long been a writer who studied family dynamics, and also the dynamics of government and the revolution, especially those that fail. Her studies of groups within these two spheres make up the two one-acts that Burning Coal has staged: A Number (2002) and Far Away (2000). Both of these are futuristic plays, A Number being in the not-so-distant future, and Far Away being in the far future.

A Number opens with a film of a conversation on Charlie Rose having to do with the then-landmark arrival on the scene of Dolly the Sheep; the two guests discuss the cloning and what some of the ramifications of such a development mean for the “future” of the “practice.” This is entirely to the point, because the play deals with a man, Salter (Mark Filiaci), and his children. Salter, a man in his sixties, has conversations with three of his children; two of those children are clones of his only son. Salter, you see, gave his son up at the age of four because he could no longer raise the boy; the tot had become too much for him to handle. Now Bernard (Ben Apple) is forty; but Salter had Bernard cloned, and the clone, also named Bernard, is now Salter’s principal offspring. In a series of five scenes, Salter has conversations with, first, the clone, then his “original” son, then the clone again, and then again with his “original.” The fifth scene is a conversation between Salter and yet another clone of Bernard, Mike Black, who grew up independently of Salter.

It is interesting to note that, of the two, the “original” Bernard is very unhappy that he has been cloned; but the clone, having only just learned the circumstances of his birth, seems to be quite okay with the further wrinkle Churchill adds to the mix, the fact that there was not only one clone created; there were twenty.

All of the sons are played by Apple, naturally. These conversations take place in Salter’s living room, simply created by a sofa, a table, and a square ‒ forming the walls of the room – using two-foot-high square, white, stools. We sit on three sides of the room, which gives us very different perspectives, depending on where we choose to sit. The seating is a scant two feet beyond the “walls” of the room.

Interestingly, Churchill does not give us her own take on the pros and cons of cloning. These conversations tend to be more focused on the two having these conversations, and their own takes on why and how the deed was done, and what the cloning means to these individuals, themselves. Still, Bernard 2 does state that “there is very little difference between us. We both hate you.”

Filiaci goes through a number of changes during the show. He first must try to explain to his boys his reasons for having Bernard cloned. Ostensibly, he wanted a second chance to rear Bernard 2 as a “do-over,” so he could avoid the mistakes he made rearing Bernard 1. Neither of the boys buys that. He then must try to accept the fact that both his boys hate him; the first he could understand, but the second is a terrible blow to him. He truly cannot understand what he did that was so bad. In the final scene, he attempts to see if Mike Black, this “other” clone, is as close a match to his own boys as would be a clone, or an identical twin, if you will. But Black cannot seem to give him the information he so desperately needs. Apple must play three very different people as if they are all the same. To my mind he does a superior job. Both these men are trying to understand something that seems to be beyond them.

In Far Away, we have an entirely different subject, and an entirely different play. The first was on a static set; in this show, no two scenes are the same. Further, we were asked to leave the theater so that the layout of the set could be completely altered, further punctuating the very different plays we were seeing. Here we see three people: Harper (Julie Oliver), an older woman who (in scene one) talks to her niece about the troubling scene she has witnessed outside her window tonight; then a young woman, Joan (Chloe Oliver), who has just started her new job in a hat-making shoppe; and finally, Todd (Apple), the man who shares her office with her and eventually becomes her husband. (Chloe also plays Harper’s niece, but the two are not the same woman).

In this play, we are very far into the future. Man has learned some remarkable new skills. Man has figured out how to communicate with the animals; he has also learned how to influence their thinking, making of them allies or foes, as the case may be. The elephants, for example, have allied themselves with the Dutch; the mosquitoes do battle for the French; and the crocodiles are just plain evil! Further, Man may also bring to bear the environment: Joan describes how she could not tell whether the water of the lake she had to ford was friend or foe. She also fears that soon one force of Man or another will harness the darkness, and the silence. All three of these characters are members of the resistance, who do battle against the government. They are paranoid – the entirety of the environment may be their enemy; paranoia is a constant. But even though they do not come out and say so, it is clear that the resistance is failing.

Todd and Joan meet in the hat shoppe and share several scenes as their relationship progresses; Harper appears only in the first and last scenes. It is the last scene where we are witness to the bending of the environment Mankind has come to learn; both Harper and Joan are terrified at what they are up against. Todd tries his best to calm his wife but neither his mother nor his wife is buying it. Scene one is a pre-cursor to the war that is full-blown in the final scene; Julie Oliver must play two very different Harpers, then. In scene one, she is trying to allay the fears of her niece, and is very conciliatory; in the final scene she is paranoid and terrified. Apple’s Todd feels two things in his budding relationship with Joan. First is his growing love for her; second, but just as real, is his need to put before his employer his idea that how the contracts for the hats they make are not properly obtained. In the penultimate scene he is still employed, so obviously the discussion with his boss went better than Todd feared it might; it is between this scene and the final one that war breaks out; and also in that time, Todd and Joan are married as well as becoming members of the resistance.

I had to take this play at face value; we are presented with a lot of information in a very short time, and none of it is explained. All three of these actors plays it very straight; their reactions, however, to what they face are exceedingly true-to-life.

These two works, very different indeed, fit well onstage together; and the very different styles, as well as subjects, showed the already-understood breadth of ability of the cast and crew of Burning Coal. As for Caryl Churchill, these two are a tantalizing indication of her favorite subjects. If you like theater in-your-face, whether that’s literally or figuratively, then these two works are going to be right up your alley. They will run Thursdays thru Sundays for this and two more weekends; you can reserve tickets by calling Burning Coal’s reservations line noted in the sidebar.