In the Forest She Grew Fangs - AKA Theatre
In the Forest She Grew Fangs — AKA Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
In the Forest She Grew Fangs is produced by AKA Theatre. Written by Stephen Spotswood. Directed by Kelly Smith. Scenic/Properties Designer: Maggie Kearnan. Lighting Designer: Samuel J. Biondolillo. Assistant Lighting Designer: Brian Ward. Sound Designer: Julianne Mason. Costume Designer: Rachael Linker. Movement Designer: Jessica Scout Malone.
AKA Theatre’s production of Stephen Spotswood’s In the Forest She Grew Fangs is a mad fever dream of a play. The events occur in a recognizable Smalltown, USA, but the production is chasing after something much more heightened. The dead branches of the surrounding woods are closing in like the claws of a wild animal. At every opportunity, the performance space is soaked with burning reds and deep blues. Acts of violence lurk somewhere on the periphery of the characters’ daily routines. A hunter finds an animal that’s been torn to pieces. It hints at a greater threat hidden within the characters that will erupt center stage in the play’s final stretch.
There’s a lot going on in AKA Theatre’s production, or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that it has its fingers in a lot of different pies. Throughout its run time, the script keeps pointing at ways that it might possibly frame the unfolding events and what it might want to say to the audience. Eventually, it makes a decision, (It has to. Otherwise the show would never end) and the cards fall where they will. However, as you leave the theater, you can’t shake the feeling that there’s something misjudged about what’s being presented here.
When we meet her, our protagonist Lucy (Kira Compton) is a withdrawn high school student being raised by her paternal Grandmother, Ruth (Karen Dervin). Lucy’s mother has previously abandoned the family and her father’s trucking job keeps him on the road. At school, Lucy is a social outcast, given the nickname, Mag the Hag, and often finding herself at other end of her classmates’ cruelty. Enter Jenny, (Branwyn Ritchie), a new girl in town from the west coast who catches the eye of both Lucy and fellow classmate, Hunter (Dylan C. Wack). To Lucy, Jenny becomes a symbol of everything she’s not and she begins following Jenny around, trying to get close to her. Hunter becomes just as infatuated with Jenny and is determined to go out with her. Jenny, though, has issues of her own. She hates that her increasingly preoccupied parents have dragged her away to the middle of nowhere and is struggling with letting go of an old boyfriend.
It sounds like the plot of a Hughes-like teen movie (and to some extent, it is), but Spotswood’s script grafts a supernatural edge to the tale. There’s something not quite right with Lucy. But what? She’s begun taking long late night walks in the woods where she loses track of time. She drifts, in a daze, right to the center of a lake where she nearly drowns. As her obsession with Jenny builds, she begins to notice how her senses are heightening; how she can smell Jenny’s scent and hear her heartbeat. She becomes aware of darker animal instincts that are bubbling to the surface of her psyche. Eventually it leads to a bloody climax where she takes revenge on the classmates that have shoved her to the fringe of society.
This is a production concerned with storytelling and fairytales. Not the Disney versions of fairytales but the original Grimm’s with their taste for more macabre and bloody content. We’re not meant to be comforted, we’re meant to be warned. The woods where the characters venture is a dark and dangerous place and designer Maggie Kearnan’s set brings the action of the play right to the edge of those woods. References to Little Red Riding Hood are peppered throughout the evening. This is a world that’s built by storytelling, so much so that pieces of text are literally placed within the branches of the set dressing. The characters very rarely interact with each other. Most of the information we receive is delivered in monologues directed to the audience.
I’ve spent the last few days trying to pin point exactly where this play went wrong for me. I think, in the end, the blame has to be laid at the door of a script which never seems to make a firm decision of exactly what it wants to do. Take, for example, the character of Hunter. There are times towards the start of the play where his character’s behavior towards Jenny rides the line of stalking. At first, it seems that this could be an inversion of the Little Red Riding Hood tropes. The Hunter is not the one who saves Red, but the one who puts her in danger. But by the end of the play, that’s dropped and he’s portrayed as one of the good guys without any kind of reflection on his part.
And what are we to make of Lucy’s slow transformation into the blood-thirsty wolf? We spend the bulk of the play’s running time watching Lucy getting beaten down by her peers; how their teasing and bullying isolates her from human connection. Later, we experience her glee as she embraces her wolf identity and slaughters her classmates. You get the feeling that the script is trying to explore the effects of bullying but is this really what we’re supposed to walk away with? Be nice to people or they’ll murder you?
There’s a kind of sour logic to how Lucy’s character is handled in Spotswood’s script. Her prototype seems to be Carrie White, the titular character from Stephen King’s Carrie. Both are tormented high school girls who embrace their inner power and get revenge. But I think there’s an important difference at work. Whatever else you might say about Carrie White, both the book and the movie it’s based on are on her side. You’re supposed to empathize with her, to share in her pain so that in a twisted way the final prom scene feels justified. Contrast that with how a scene late in In the Forest, She Grew Fangs is written and directed. Jenny is on her way to a dance and Lucy intercepts her. She begs Jenny to run away to the woods with her and with a crazed look in her eye rambles about how beautiful Jenny is. How wonderful her hair and her scent is. Lucy reaches for Jenny and Jenny backs away in fear. In that moment, the audience is not asked to empathize with Lucy, but to look at her as something to be afraid of. The bullied individual is a threat to be vanquished.
Early in the play Ruth tells the audience a fairytale-like story from her childhood where a young girl tries to escape a cannibalistic hunter. The story has two endings. There’s the happier one that most people use in the retelling, and then the one that really happened. I can see the value in embracing the story with the unhappier ending. But In the Forest She Grew Fangs doesn’t give me enough of a reason to want to listen.
In the Forest She Grew Fangs is produced by AKA Theatre at The Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts November 16-December 2, 2018.
For tickets and more information, visit: www.bostontheatrescene.com