Thomas Burns Scully / Critic There’s nothing quite like being taken by surprise by a piece of theatre; entering a performance space with no preconceptions and emerging two-and-some hours later having had your life changed a little. It’s the reason we go to shows. When I rode the N-Train up to Astoria yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect from the show I was going to see. I was heading to something called “The Fox and Boulder” by a group called the Ophelia Theatre Group. I didn’t know what either of these things were. Ophelia Theatre turned out to be a theatre company from California that have spurned the Gold Rush and gone east, housing themselves in a converted black-box space in a rec-centre in Astoria. “The Fox and Boulder” turned out to be a rather wonderful play by Sarah Bennett being performed by said Californians. If you have a busy day ahead of you, I’ll save you a bit of time and sum it up in four words: Go and see it. This one is definitely worth it. If you don’t have a busy day ahead of you, well then… read on.
“The Fox and Boulder” is a comedy, though calling it a comedy seems misleading. Not because it’s not funny, it’s very funny, but the soul of the play has a melancholy to it that the term comedy doesn’t always suggest. In practice it’s something akin to the mood of a Wes Anderson film. It is set in a fantasy medieval realm, in a local village pub which gives its name with the title of the play. We meet the pub’s owner, Hepley, his barmaid Gretchen and their regulars in steady succession. These include the hapless Strock, a borderline village idiot who has visions of becoming king; Forsythe, the local abbott who is in love with Gretchen; Brenna, a charming peasant-girl; and Lilac, a wily and aspirational trader. The group are joined by Simon, a traveller who has come to town looking for his lost love, and a group of knights from the neighboring kingdom. The knights warn of impending war. In a show of hospitality over aggression, the locals offer to throw them a party. As the party gets going, a group of gypsies roll in and stir things up even further. The stage is set for an evening of discovery, alcohol fueled lust, and conversations of the heart.
“Fox and Boulder” is very well written, Bennett has a good hand for dialogue and draws interesting, funny, lovable characters. Her story unfolds at a comfortable walking pace with occasional infusions of raw energy (most notably with the arrival of the gypsies); it never rushes forward, but the audience is never bored either. Her plot twists come from all realms of storytelling: modern meet-cutes, classic fairy tales and bawdy Greek comedy; creating a narrative that has a little something for everyone. The Wes Anderson comparison seems to hold fair, as the whole show has the feel of a sentimental indie-comedy. Add to that notes of the Spewacks’ “My Three Angels” and Philip Barry’s “Hotel Universe”, and you have a pretty good idea of what “Fox and Boulder” is like: Charming, heartfelt, slightly whimsical, but nicely grounded at the same time. Kudos to the writer.
Bennett co-directs with Eric Ruiter. The pair do a nice job of wrangling their sizable cast (fifteen actors in all), who all hand in marvelous performances. They are too numerous to mention all in turn, but the ensemble cast give the play a vivacious life. Examples of same include (and are not limited to) Jon Schaller as Hepley. He is endearingly put-upon, with a semi-permanent hang-dog expression that suits his character wonderfully. Brittney Moss as Brenna brings to mind the ultimate girl next door as she plays with Ian Petersen’s Simon. Taryne Kellogg plays the slightly unscrupulous Lilac to a highly enjoyable T. And Logan Sutton as the gypsy leader Bolajz is disarmingly sexy and compelling; a volatile compound of Eddie Izzard, Johnny Depp and Mick Jagger. As I said earlier, however, the whole cast is on form.
“Fox and Boulder” impresses on the technical side too. Ophelia Theatre have converted the theatre space they perform in themselves, and it seems more serviceable (and spacious) than many of the more popular Manhattan black boxes. Their years of experience shine through in their stagecraft too. The set is simply realized, but undeniably evocative, the lighting design compliments it perfectly, as does the sound design, and the costumes range from the wonderfully burlesque to the pleasantly quaint. All elements come together to create an imaginary period in history, much in the manner of “Princess Bride” or similar. Much approval to Shelby Lee Leora, Eric Marchetta, Rebecca Joy Wallace and Dave Green for the lighting, scenery, costume and sound, respectively. They bring all the components of the show together into a palpable atmosphere, which stays with you for hours after you leave the show.
Indeed, atmosphere is probably the key word here. The play is called “The Fox and Boulder”, and it really is the imaginary pub that’s the star of the show. If you picture your best nights at your favorite slightly-run-down bar with your favorite slightly-run-down people, that’s what going to see this show is like. An evening with good friends you’ve never met before. It feels handmade and well-loved. It’s not perfect, but the occasional cracks in the firmament are entirely forgivable when weighed against all the good fun and good will that this show brings. It took me by surprise, and I highly recommend you take a trip on the NQ to Astoria and get surprised yourself.
General Admission: $18
Sunday Evenings: Pay What You Can!
Runs on Weekends until the 28th of March