By Kristen Palmer; Directed by Heather Cohn
Produced by Flux Theater Ensemble
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 12.20.14
4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street
by Amanda LaPergola on 12.13.14
Rachael Hip-Flores and Kristen Vaughan in Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest. Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.
BOTTOM LINE: A beautifully imagined modern day fairytale with a talented cast and a lovely set. Flux Theater Ensemble knocks it out of the park, again.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of seeing Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Jane The Plain, an inventive story about one young woman’s coming of age. This month, Flux is bringing another strange, female-driven story to the downtown theatre scene; one that’s a bit more haunting and grown-up.
In Once Upon A Bride There Was A Forest, Josie (Rachael Hip-Flores) is settling into an adult life and even accepts the proposal from her longtime boyfriend Warren (Chinaza Uche). The impending milestone prompts Josie to find her long-lost father before she walks down the aisle. When her car stalls on a rainy leg of her journey, Josie stumbles into the stately home of the mysterious Wright family, who may hold answers to many of her long-held questions. How much is Josie willing to give of herself for the promise of closure? How much of herself is worth sacrificing for a heart-clinging dream?
Playwright Kristen Palmer crafts a contemporary fairytale that feels timeless. She gives us a classic hero’s journey and a variation on princess tales while subtly subverting and exploring classic tropes of the genre. Evil queens, magic spells, true love quests: Palmer touches on all these without patting herself on the back or spelling things out for the audience. She gives Once Upon A Bride... a dream-like feeling that weaves its own lyrical spell.
Hip-Flores gives a subtle, tender turn as Josie, and her character's yearning is palpable in her performance. Small of stature, Hip-Flores ably carries this play on her slight shoulders, bearing the weight of Josie’s journey with admirable strength and dignity.
Speaking of dignity, there is hardly a better actress for regal Wright matriarch Eugenia than Kristen Vaughan. Vaughan brings a lovely grace to any character that she plays, whether it be the sadistic head of a mental asylum (as in Blood Brothers at the Brick this past year) or in this play as mysteriously magical WASP with a secretly fragile heart. The indie theater scene should get down on its knees and thank whatever deity it likes best that it has an actor with the skill and range as Vaughan in their ranks.
The rest of the cast in unified in their strength as an ensemble. The entertaining Becky Byers attacks the role of Belle, the Wrights' spoiled Teacup Yorkie of a daughter, with feisty energy. Brian Silliman -- always indispensible -- wrings laughter with his bone-dry turn as the Wright’s manservant. As Everett, the seemingly clueless husband of Eugenia, Arthur Aulisi brings subtle depths to his role. As a man with a charmed life, his grasps at self-understanding are heartbreaking. And Chinaza Uche is a very likeable presence as the besotted Warren.
The production, fluidly directed by Heather Cohn, is matched in the strength of its cast by the stunning work of its design team. Will Lowry evokes the play’s dreamy aura by erecting a simple, moody set. Dark wooden beams cut through the stage like trees, wicker birdcages dangle from the ceiling and empty golden picture frames deck the walls. Kia Rogers's effective lighting adds to the stage’s eery atmosphere. And Stephanie Levin’s costumes are simply divine, especially Belle’s many frilly dresses which seem to get more spectacular as the play goes on.
This is a complete package of a show: deeply felt, skillfully acted, and charmingly designed. Flux’s continued efforts to bring strong, engaging works to the New York theater scene brings beauty to an oft uneven landscape.
(Once Upon A Bride There Was a Forest plays at the 4th Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street, through December 20, 2014. Performances are Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30PM and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $15-$18 and are available at fluxtheatre.org )