The Northern Quarter
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
January 7, 2006
Faas is a grown man trapped under his parents' roof. In the name of love and safety, his parents obstruct Faas’s desire for a world greater than their own. Before The Northern Quarter begins, he sits onstage staring longingly at a photograph of the universe on an easel. As the action starts, an actor in black removes photo after photo from the stand, revealing different locations, each more specific than the last. The final picture is of Faas, trapped behind a window, screaming.
Alex van Warmerdam’s script and Erwin Maas’s direction both emphasize that Faas’s parents do truly love him. Heather Hollingsworth as Martha and Vincent van der Valk as Kloos look significantly younger than Dave Gueriera’s Faas, which is effective because Faas’s parents have essentially never aged. They see themselves and he sees them as the same parents they were 40 years ago. They argue over giving Faas a censored dictionary the way most parents debate about appropriate television shows. Martha spends the play manically knitting a red scarf, and in one crucial scene wraps and wraps and wraps Faas up before she lets him go out in the backyard (with herself and Kloos standing watch, of course). And if Faas was 40 years younger, their behavior would be entirely appropriate, in fact, unnoticeable. But he is 43, and what is normal, loving behavior for parents of a three-year-old is instead strange, restricting, irritating, infuriating, absurd.
All the design elements of the play are beautifully executed. The house where Faas lives with his parents is just a glowing rectangle on the stage, but it’s all you need to feel their limited world. Lucrecia Briceno and Tim Cryan use light to define space and confront the audience, Andrea Gastlelum’s masks and props add detail, and Paul Lomax and Andy Keech’s graphics are very appropriate. Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes are especially apt and luscious. Kloos and Martha are entirely china figurine white, down to their hair, and their cute little folk costumes and the red circles on their cheeks set the stylized tone of the play right away. Faas’s costume is the same white, but his naked face makes him older and more vulnerable than they are. And the people the family meets outside the house explode with color. The broad and simple visual world lets the complexity of the story come through.
There is more than a suggestion that the play is a metaphor for society. And while the metaphor is apt and the stylization of the staging encourages the broad interpretation, what is so interesting about this script is that it can be read on the literal level as well. Despite the absurdity, the story of a grown man whose parents can’t live without him and can’t let him grow up and can’t face the truth about themselves is one that many people will be able to identify with. The Northern Quarter may be about the prisons we are born into, but it’s also very much about the prison of the mind and our addiction to the known and the safe. In one particularly telling scene, Faas manages to convince his parents that he should take a trip with a painter. After much convincing, they finally agree, and come with him. The painter says his parents can’t come along, and laughs at him. And what does Faas do? Spit at the painter and leave with his parents in a huff.
At another point, Faas begins to paint with a palette of colors that talk back to him in the voices of his parents. Not abusive, not even directly negative, but constantly undermining, until he’s so caught in his head he can’t make a move. When Faas does finally physically break free from his parents, there is something unsettling, unfinished, because escaping from the exterior prison is really the easy part. Escape from the interior prison of over 40 years of life is going to be a different matter entirely.