Good theater can sometimes grab you by the throat, but rarely does it drag you from your bed and leave a bloody trail to the open window. Rarer still can this gruesome scene leave you pensive, even laughing. In the Forest, She Grew Fangs, written by Stephen Spotswood and directed by Ryan Taylor, hits the mark with a horror show that is funny, thoughtful and timely, as well as spot on for a season fit for ghosts and ghouls.
The play is set in rural, small-town America with a focus on three high school students: Jenny (Jenny Donovan), the displaced, out-of-her-element cool-kid with West Coast appeal; Hunter (Luke Cieslewicz), a one-time “fat kid” still settling into his recent ascension into the jock hierarchy; and Lucy (Megan Graves), a girl with a troubled home life who is noticed only by her high school tormenters. The only adult in the room, so to speak, is Lucy’s Grandmother Ruth (Jane Petkofsky), a woman clearly doing her best but struggling to bring the wayward Lucy to heel.
In the Forest is set to a backdrop of Little Red Riding Hood, an allusion that comes sharply into focus as the work carries on. Throughout the play, Lucy seeks refuge from her abusers and her nightmares in a nearby forest. When Jenny rescues Lucy late at night from a precarious situation, Lucy develops an unrequited crush that serves as a new focal point in the midst of Lucy’s isolation.
All appears normal in the sleepy town until mangled deer carcasses begin to appear around town, signaling that not all is right with the world.
The cast takes us through reflections on the bullying they’ve experienced in school, their struggles to fit in and the desperation that emerges from a perception of being trapped in a small town without a future.
Jenny Donovan delivers a home-run as Jenny, the pretty and sophisticated city-girl who knows who she is but doesn’t quite fit in with the country stylings of her classmates. Donovan is believably cool sneaking cigarettes and extolling wisdom in the woods, and she’s just as dynamic in moments of sheer terror as she is in mundane moments of texting or eye-rolling from the background.
Likewise, Luke Cieslewicz is a smash as Hunter. The humor of In the Forest is delivered largely through Cieslewicz, who nails the anguish of an awkward teen in lust to the audience’s delight. Hunter isn’t without his own inner demons, however, and Cieslewicz shows range and passion as Hunter recalls the torments of his younger years.
Megan Graves commands the stage as Lucy, the easily forgotten little girl from the back of the class. Graves’ Lucy is noticeably troubled, but in way that lets the audience waver between shock and sympathy throughout.
Writer Steven Spotswood is to be commended for a script that is dedicated to the development of characters that are interesting and recognizable. Spotswood’s work swerves hard to avoid tropes and stereotypes, which is a feat considering the play examines the well-trodden landscape of high school drama.
To be sure, there are elements to the work that not everyone will love. The reliance on monologue is effective but fills a space where more traditional interaction between the characters might occur. Spotswood’s writing is also heavy on description, crafting a script that’s as full of similes as a high school pep rally is full of uncomfortable teens. Spotswood’s characters also speak with an educated patter that most 15-year-olds couldn’t muster, but they’re saying the things that most 15-year-olds feel and that’s pretty much close enough.
Not every moment in the play works perfectly, either. The chorus (Megan Behm, Natalie Cutcher and Anna Lathrop) provides solid work on stage, but their off-stage calls are a little awkward. There is also a sense that the actors are still feeling their way across a set that is dangerously narrow and fraught with uncooperative props (some tippy benches, in particular).
Still, it’s a stretch to find fault with the work, and most are stylistic preferences, not marks against a play that has real depth.
In the Forest She Grew Fangs
Closes November 3, 2013
Washington Rogues at
Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint
916 G St NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Spotswood’s work draws inspiration from recent high school tragedies and the “It Gets Better” campaign supporting (largely) GLBT youth experiencing bullying in school and at home. In the Forest is reverential of events from Columbine to Laramie, and if a little levity helps drive home Spotswood’s message then all the better.
This is one to see with someone who doesn’t mind you gripping their knee in horror between belly laughs. Expect to leave thoughtful and disturbed, but with a smile.
In the Forest, She Grew Fangs by Stephen Spotswood . Directed by Ryan S. Taylor . Featuring Megan Graves, Jenny Donovan, Jane Petkofsky (Ruth), Luke Cieslewicz, Natalie Cutcher, Anna Lathrop, Megan Behm. . Costume and Prop Designer: Jesse Shipley . Set and Light Designer: Chris Holland . Sound Designer: Veronica Lancaster . Fight Choreographer: Megan Behm . Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Mary Cat Gill .Produced by Washington Rogues . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.