Friday, November 06, 2015

The Incredible Fox Sisters

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus is clearly fascinated with the past, factual and fictional, and how it reflects on the present. In You On The Moors Now, she examines romantic tropes as handed down to us by the Brontes, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott. In the amazing, funny, and captivating Men on Boats, she deconstructs depictions of the heroic male with an all-female cast. Now, in The Incredible Fox Sisters (directed by Tyler Mercer), her topic is 19th-century Spiritualism.

Katrina Day, Hannah Vaughn
Photo: Jonno Rattman
Somewhat based on a true story, The Incredible Fox Sisters takes off when the not-exactly-reputable Dr. Amphitheater meets Kate and Maggie Fox and decides to turn their psychic powers into money. The Foxes go on tour and experience all the levels of celebrity, good and bad. They also genuinely help some people. The Fox sisters' time away from home and their fame affect the sisters in different ways, as Maggie's powers seem to grow as Kate's seem to shrink. Their much older sister Leah tours with them, aware of the pressures on the younger girls, but also aware that their financial success allows their desperately ill mother to receive medical attention. Meanwhile, Dr. Amphitheater just wants to keep the money rolling in.

The Incredible Fox Sisters has much in it that is funny and thought-provoking. However, it lacks a cohesive tone, ranging from ghost story to skit comedy. Also, by making it clear that the girls actually do talk to the dead, it eliminates the sort of ambiguity that deepens a story and allows an audience their own interpretations. 
The Actual Fox Sisters

The Incredible Fox Sisters is framed by monologues by Dr. Amphitheater. At the start, he says, 

"If you see something that terrifies you
Run for your life
Or wait there, feet planted
And let it haunt you
Vertebrae by vertebrae."
At the end, he says, 
We feel more alive
When we are scared-
When we are present in the face
Of terrible 
Yet the show plays about 90% silly and 10% genuine (with the later often buried in the noise of the former). For example, the penultimate scene, sandwiched between an ostensibly sad and mystical reunion and Dr. Amphitheater's final speech, gives us broad comedy relying on Fargo-esque accents and recycled jokes. The show gets in its own way again and again, and it is neither mysterious or spooky.

Part of the problem may be the direction. Mercer keeps the mood of the play at least a level too antic, undercutting the genuine feelings and ideas underneath the the fun. Another problem is that too much time is spent on the 25 or so scene changes, so that any time the show finds a rhythm, it is interrupted.

On the other hand, the cast is quite good. (They are Katrina Day, Phoebe Dunn, Stephen Elrod, Shannon Haddock, Andrew Hamling, Kate Owens, Anthony Ritosa, and Hannah Vaughn.) And the design elements are strong. The soundscape, by Beth Lake, and the video, by Katherine Freer, give hints of what the show might have been if it took itself more seriously.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)

No comments: