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“Foxfinder” at Furious: riveting tale of lies and truths

Sara Hennessy, Joshua Weinstein and Shawn Lee star in the FURIOUS THEATRE COMPANY'S rolling World Premiere production of FOXFINDER. [photo:  Owen Carey]

Sara Hennessy, Joshua Weinstein and Shawn Lee star in the FURIOUS THEATRE COMPANY’S rolling World Premiere production of FOXFINDER.
[photo: Owen Carey]

In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s first play emphasized the concept – inspired by the rise of Nazism – that a lie repeated long enough, with enough conviction, can eventually be seen as true. Just like “The Children’s Hour” 80 years ago, Dawn King’s new venture “Foxfinder” looks at this elemental concept of indoctrination, propaganda and fear.

In a “rolling U.S. premiere” directed by former Furious Theatre Company artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, “Foxfinder” has landed at Furious, back at their home in the Carrie Hamilton Theater. Compelling and intense, it has much to recommend it to those caught up in popular ethos: insidious propaganda, a dystopian future, nature v mankind. Still, the overarching statement being made resonates back to Hellman’s warning: say something untrue long enough, and it becomes a people’s truth.

In “Foxfinder,” the concern is productive use of limited farmland, and a government strictly monitoring the efficiency with which each parcel is utilized. Any slacking off, even caused by weather, is liable to lead to an investigation by a “foxfinder,” raised up to look for evidence of the evil and subliminal control of foxes upon the society. With fox infiltration seen as the source of all inefficiency and rebellion, foxfinder investigations are feared, with reason.

Shawn Lee and Sara Hennessy are Samuel and Judith, a simple-living farm couple struggling with loss and bad weather, and the oppressive fact that a foxfinder has come. Joshua Weinstein creates the rigidly indoctrinated foxfinder William, struggling with his own humanity even as he carefully documents the human failings of his subjects. Amanda Soden, as their neighbor Sarah, supplies the reasoning and therefore rebellious counter argument, putting her family at risk by articulating the pointlessness of the foxfinder’s purpose.

Lee creates in Samuel a man desperate for something to give his life purpose, confused and self-isolated. Hennessy’s careful, protective Judith provides what balance there can be in a household of constant stress. Soden’s inquiringly dangerous Sarah, on stage in sudden spurts, speaks to the passions which inspire underground rebellions – sympathetic, hopeful, and human.

Yet, though the entire story proves compelling watching, Weinstein’s indoctrinated automaton discovering his humanity creates the greatest fascination. Initially a man of fascist passion, William’s fights to cling to his proud asceticism while overwhelmed with very human desires makes the entire piece work as a whole.

“Foxfinder” is not new news. Fascistic authoritarianism, though in this instance sparked apparently by climate change, has been worked and reworked over time, and perhaps better. The message at the core of the play, be it suspicion of blind belief, the unnatural condition of denying one’s essential nature, or the compelling power of a well and sincerely told lie, has also been seen before.

Still, what sets this production of this play apart is the quality of the performance, as the actors create characters of rounded familiarity. Add to this the taut direction by Rodriguez, which keeps one on the edge of one’s seat, and the artistry of those whose work literally sets the stage for what appears.

The minimalist but very effective set by Kristeen Willis Crosser allows effective changes of scene, aided by her facile lighting design. Doug Newell’s ominous original music, and general sound design help build the feeling of dread so necessary to the piece. Gregory Pulver’s contrasting clothing between peasant-like country folk and tightly formal official defines character before a word is spoken.

“Foxfinder” runs roughly 90 minutes without intermission which is a necessity. Frankly, breaking the sense of disquiet and rising emotion would dilute the most important elements. Furious Theater’s last two productions have removed the standard proscenium-based interior of the Carrie Hamilton, turning it into a modified “black box” with moveable seating. This too allows the action to be closer, and the feeling more intense.

What: “Foxfinder” When: Through February 2, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., in Pasadena How Much: $20 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.furioustheatre.org

Intellect, Pain and a Puzzle: Furious Theatre returns to Pasadena with “Gidion’s Knot”

Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale in Furious Theatre's "Gidion's Knot" [Photo: Nick Cernoch]

Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale in Furious Theatre’s “Gidion’s Knot” [Photo: Nick Cernoch]

It is completely appropriate to this company that Furious Theatre’s return to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse should come accompanied by a kick in the gut. Pushing boundaries, observing and decoding confrontation, and always the challenge to think – perhaps even to the point of having to look oneself in the mirror in a different way – is what Furious is about. Most assuredly the Los Angeles-area premiere of “Gidion’s Knot” by Johnna Adams provides all these things, and at Furious it provides them up close.

In “Gideon’s Knot” perhaps the most complicated kind of “knot” presents itself: Gideon, a 10-year-old boy, has killed himself. His mother shows up at the door of his 5th grade classroom to keep the parent-teacher conference she’d agreed to before the tragedy. There she works to tear up, or apart, the teacher she blames for her boy’s death, yet must confront the boy the teacher knew and she did not. In the end, there is fury and also hints at an answer, but it may not be the one the mother can handle.

Director Darin Anthony brings his audience intentionally, disquietingly close to the action, as the two women wrestle with each other and with tragedy. They sit in student desks around the edges of Aaron Francis’ recreated classroom, where Miss Clark is grading papers. The tears, the anger, the struggle in the midst of emotional upheaval to deconstruct a horrible event, all happen almost within arm’s length. This is also the point. This isn’t happening somewhere else. It is something shared. Immediate.

Paula Cale has the true aura of an elementary school teacher as Heather Clark: gentle but firm, emotionally connected to the doings in her classroom. Indeed, her character’s emotionalism is the weakness this parent-nemisis seeks to use to advantage. Still, she carries an underlying sense of solidity – of being on her home turf – which allows her some balance against the attack.

Vonessa Martin creates the furious, distraught Corryn Fell, Gideon’s mother, as a person caught between intellectualism and a need to both vent and blame, even if that emotion is also smoke-screen. As she circles the focus of her anger, and strikes at the most vulnerable points, she also allows us a physical sense of the chinks in her own armor. The two play extraordinarily well off of each other, keeping the tension of this play roaring throughout – but a tension which has the audience in a constant state of reevaluation.

“Gidion’s Knot” asks complicated questions, and lays the groundwork for just as complicated answers. It never talks down to its observers, leaving bits of that very knot to be unraveled slowly, just as it must be by the two women confronting each other in the script. And that is what one expects from this company: excellence, tension, things to think about and a few things left hanging in the air one breathes. Be aware, even the seating is not particularly about comfort. This play is performed without intermission, which makes complete sense as there is no way one could interrupt the emotional build happening in real time.

What: “Gidion’s Knot” When: Through November 24, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $20 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.furioustheatre.org

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