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ryl Churchill's Far Away is not for the faint of heart. It introduces us to a brutally dark world of war, paranoia, and misery where human creativity becomes a sick parade of hats atop dancing prisoners. It is also quite a funny play in its wholehearted embrace of the absurd. Yet with this vivid and viciously rendered production, director Ron Sossi avoids the temptation to let us laugh and distance ourselves. Indeed, the point he pushes home is that this world is not so far away at all. The first scene is a lesson in suspense, starting with the mundane and moving slowly toward the horrific. Young Joan (Laila Kearney) is visiting her aunt Harper (Beth Hogan) in a farmhouse. She is unable to sleep. She says she has heard screaming in the backyard. Harper tells her it was an owl. In a masterfully crafted scene, Joan slowly reveals the full extent of what she witnessed: She saw people out there being beaten by her uncle. Harper struggles to offer an explanation that might satisfy the child, but, like Joan, we are never satisfied by her answers. Kearney and Hogan rise beautifully to the task of portraying two people who are not being fully transparent with each other, who inch suspiciously toward full disclosure while keeping anger and frustration at bay. Flash forward to later in Joan's life. The older Joan (Shiva Rose McDermott) and her co-worker Todd (Jason Peck) work in a hat factory, flirting and discussing the company's rife corruption. But will he do anything to stop it? Next comes a twisted kind of fashion show of hats, put on by condemned prisoners who dance and perform while their faces convulse. Thanks to the efforts of the show's designers, this scene is torturous to watch. Kristin Hensley's ingenious makeup design—smudges of blood and dirt, rippling scars—makes these ghoulish prisoners genuinely terrifying, contrasted with Carlos Munoz's brilliant, oddly delightful hats. Finally we are back at the farmhouse, with Joan and Todd having become full participants in a war in which nothing is spared: ants, deer, Thai butchers, Latvian dentists—even the weather is suspected as a traitor. Here the play has a series of bizarre and funny lines: "It's always right to be opposed to crocodiles," mutters Harper. Or, later, Joan asserts: "The weather here is on the side of the Japanese." Yet these lines are never delivered with the kind of gusto that might allow us to relax and snicker; hence Churchill's writing comes across at times as suffocatingly relentless. Not everyone has to agree with Walter Benjamin that laughter is the best way to start to think about the unthinkable, and Sossi's choices are admirably risky—if agonizing to experience. This is one difficult hour of theatre, all the more for how confidently it is realized. "Far Away," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Nov. 15-Jan. 25. $12-25.(310) 477-205

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