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  • Jonathan Pitts

Feisty Fen at Court

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

Fen, written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Vanessa Stalling opened recently at Hyde Park's Court Theatre.

When entering the theatre, the first thing noticeable is the amazing well-designed set by Collette

Pollard, setting up the world (as best as a single stage can) that the play’s story takes place in. I’m also glad that a certain door on the set was finally used at the end and for good purpose (watching the show, I started calling it Chekov’s Door, wondering if it was ever going to be used). The sound design by Jeffrey Levin is also excellently done (except for two small moments where it is louder than the actor is as they’re starting to speak). The costumes designed by Izumi Inaba do a really good job defining the different characters, as the 6-person ensemble plays 20 different characters. The lighting design by Keith Parham, does a really nice job to accentuate the emotions and moments of the play. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen a play with old school lighting versus all the LCD lights that’s now in use just about everywhere. In its own way, the lights being older also helped underscore the play’s timeline being back in the 1980’s.) The stage manager Erin Albrecht does a lovely job keeping everything on track and moving forward.

The 6 actors (Lizzy Bourne; Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel; Alex Goodrich; Elizabeth Laidlaw; Morgan Lavenstein; Genevieve VenJohnson), under the sure and steady direction by Vanessa Stalling, collectively do strong and lovely work. It is never easy to play multiple characters, keeping inward needs and outward expressions, specific and different, without sometimes playing some characters more facile than others, and this ensemble does not fall into this trap. They also do a good job with their characters’ different accents and voices (Eve Breneman, dialect designer), and they share space with each other very well.

In some ways, Churchill’s play is a ghost story, with a backdrop of class struggle in a tragically worn- down community. Oddly, it reminded me a bit of “Our Town”, but without the stage manager narrator. (Though at the start of the play there is a businessman character, who lit in a spotlight, delivers a monologue to the audience. In the moment, I wasn’t sure if the character was breaking the 4 th wall, like Our Town’s stage manager does, or if the character was speaking to us all as if we were a collective character.) As with everything Churchill writes, the play is both accomplished and well written, but unfortunately, I didn’t emotionally connect to it. I’m sure I’d have a very different reaction if I was from, or in, the UK, and knew the cultural, historical, and sociological significance that this play is based on. Instead, I found myself watching it more intellectually, with a Bernie Sanders like voice translating the play’s action in my head: “Farmers are getting screwed over by corporations! Workers are being exploited with very limited possibilities for themselves! Women and children have it even harder under Thatcher’s predatory capitalism! That’s why we need you to vote for the Labor Party!”

As for the impressive Court Theatre production, and it is, everyone involved does really good work to get the most out of it they can, and they do. But watching it, as the play progresses that bit of distance and removal never went away and only grew. Because the story is so specific to 1980’s eastern England, with so many different characters and community locations, for the first time sitting in a theatre watching a play I thought to myself, “I wish this was a movie instead”.

With this production of “Fen”, I recommend viewing audiences read what they can from the Court

Theatre’s helpful and informative program book to gain some background info on the play’s story.

Fen is running February 10 – March 5, 2023 at the Court Theatre 5535 S. Ellis in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. For tickets and information go to

For more reviews go to

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