BWW Reviews: Flux Theatre Ensemble's ONCE UPON A BRIDE THERE WAS A FOREST Combines Fairy Tale Troupes, 21st Century References
Once upon a time there was a play that showcased fairy tale motifs and iPhones, dollhouses and GPS directional systems. This is Flux Theatre Ensemble's production of Kristen Palmer's world premiere play "Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest," now running at the 4th Street Theatre. The logic behind the odd juxtaposition of these parallel universes remains a puzzle to me, as does the rest of the play's content. With direction by Heather Cohn, however, the ensemble in Flux's production manages to surpass the bizarre material that they are tasked with performing.
While it is hard to describe the contents of the twisty, confusing tale that is "Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest," here goes the gist. A young woman, Josie (Rachael Hip-Flores), resides in a quaint apartment in the city with her boyfriend, Warren (Chinaza Uche), where she is seen at the top of the play dusting like a veritable Cinderella while also discussing cell phones, cars, and other 21st century milieu. When Warren proposes to Josie, she tells him she cannot marry him until she has reunited with her long-lost father. Josie takes the couple's car and wanders off into the forest. When her car breaks down, Josie stumbles upon a mysterious house on a hill - wherein she meets the yet more mysterious Wright family. Mistaken for the new nanny for the family's constantly crying baby, Josie soon becomes entrenched in the entanglements of the wicked stepmother-like Eugenia (Kirsten Vaughan), the angelic and naïve Belle (Becky Byers), the man of the house, Everett (Arthur Aulisi), and their charming butler, Mr. Livingstone (Brian Silliman). When Josie begins to suspect that Everett may be her father and consequently faces the wrath of Eugenia, the situation becomes yet more complicated - with several fairy tale style plot twists included along the way to this tale's hopeful happily ever after.
Though "Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest" occupies an odd space between the present and the ubiquitous moment of Grimm's fairy tales, the set leans decidedly towards the latter. Will Lowry's set features an open wooden space with fairy tale-like flourishes, including a dollhouse that remains throughout the duration of the play on stage left. Stephanie Levin's costumes bring in elements of both worlds in the play. While Warren and Josie primarily wear modern garb, the Wright family appears to have stepped out of a storybook.
While playwright Palmer cleverly interweaves fairy tale types straight from the pages of the Grimm brothers's book into her play, she does not make abundantly clear the purpose of doing so. Nor by play's end is the real purpose of Josie's journey clearly elucidated. The overall fairy tale mystique of the place seems rather odd in juxtaposition, for example, to the iPhone that Mr. Livingstone brings Josie at one point on a silver plate. While Palmer does effectively tell a tale with a beginning, middle, and end in "Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest," the play seems to be missing a key ingredient of any fairy tale: a moral - or, in the case of the theater world, a meaning.
Though I feel that "Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest" makes for thoroughly befuddling theater, I applaud the cast for thoroughly committing to their roles. The ensemble truly is the highlight of this strange production. As Josie, Hipman-Flores brings pathos and depth to her character. She truly anchors the play, bestowing a grounded nature to her character while the other actors around her (less Uche) are rooted in fantasy. As Eugenia, Vaughan is deliciously over-the-top and undeniably wicked - her saccharine sweet voice mixed with the delivery of her icy lines successfully put me on edge. As Belle, Byers gives a suitably over-the-top performance in the opposite direction - she plays up her character's extreme naïveté to just the right effect. As Mr. Livingstone, Silliman provides a bit of comic relief amidst the oddity. Though Aulisi and Uche perhaps have the most "straight man" roles of the play, they too handle their parts with utter dedication.
Though "Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest" feels more like a confusing nightmare than a happily ever after theatergoing dream, Flux's ensemble of actors displays true talent and dedication to their craft. They handle both the iPhones and the fairy tale troupes in stride.
"Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest" runs through December 20 at the 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street. Tickets are $18. http://www.fluxtheatre.org/tickets/.
PHOTO CREDIT: Isaiah Tanenbaum