Of Farms and Fables shows beauty, struggle of family farming

Speaking from the fields
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  October 26, 2011

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FINDING THEIR PLACES Actors, including farm workers and their children, rehearse Of Farms and Fables.

From the bean patch, Lily calls her husband Walker: Pests in the beans. Walker is over in the chard patch, which he says looks like Swiss cheese. Then their farm worker Ramon calls: The lettuce has bolted. Their son Harry: The Internet is down. Half a dozen strangers: Why isn't the farm doing U-Pick strawberries this year, like the old owners did? Walker again: The cow's escaped. Again.

It's all in a day's work on a family farm. From pests to family strife to the game-changing scale of industrial farming, the challenges to the modern family farm are given unsentimentally resonant treatment in Open Waters Theatre Arts' Of Farms and Fables, the theatrical culmination of several years of research and residencies on farms here in southern Maine.

With a script by Cory Tamler, direction by Jennie Hahn, and a cast that includes farm workers and children of farmers, this most recommended production runs October 27-30, at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough.

In Open Waters' plain and simple billing, Of Farms and Fables is "a play about the people who bring you food." A team of its actors, playwright, and director spent last summer working alongside those very people, the farmers and farm workers who sow and weed at Wm. H. Jordan, Broadturn, and Benson farms. After a season of learning their work, and of hearing their worries and joys, Open Waters' artists turned to the task of making theater of the experience, to share with the public a nuanced look at the realities of family farming in the modern age.

Playwright Tamler's script sets up a fictional central narrative of two adjacent family farms: Lily (Anna Barnett), Walker (Christopher Reiling), and their Maine-hating son Harry (Jesse James) have just moved from New York City to rent and work land on a farm that's recently been cut up and sold after being worked by the same family for generations. Next door, Mitch (Jeff Wax), with his wife Karen (Penny Jordan), their teenage daughter Sidney (Emma Cooper), and younger daughter Hannah (Flora Bliss), has taken over operation of the farm once run by his Uncle Ed (Harley Marshall), but his enthusiasm for farming is on the wane. Sidney adores the farm, and is always coming up with new innovations for it — partnering with restaurants, selling shares of a cow — but her parents are pushing her to go to college. Meanwhile, Lily and Walker are overwhelmed with farm work, their marriage suffers, and their son thinks chard looks like "monster puke." Between the two families, we see the stresses of both a new and a seventh-generation family working the land.

Mixed into that main storyline is a bounty of other voices and interludes, including dramatizations of the folktales of farm workers Ramon (Jae Rodriguez) and Omar (Neftali Rivera), a collage of voices praising parsley and eggplant, and diverse answers to the question "What is a farmer?" Of Farms also features a compelling array of staging techniques: Actors cross the stage miming the acts of fertilizing, sowing, and tamping down; of cutting and bunching chard; and (most beautifully) of harvesting cauliflower and raising it toward the sky. The ensemble forms tableaux as the photos of Sidney's show-and-tell slide-show. We hear both English and Spanish, as Ramon and Omar tell stories of lazy Juan Bobo and talk of whether each will return in the winter to their tropical homes.

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