Wednesday, September 22, 2010

THEATER: The Little Foxes

Having never read The Little Foxes or watched the 1941 film, I can't speak to whether the essence of Lillian Hellman's production has been maintained. Director Ivo Van Hove has stripped so much out--not just the furniture, but almost all of the humanizing elements of this conniving clan--that it speaks largely as a symbolic work, a condemnation of a society in which there are those who "tear up the earth" and then those who watch. With the brusque physical actions and the whip-snap starts into melodrama, it feels almost like watching a more savage and far less romantic Odets. Then again, this icy production is a good match for the current populist anger against pure, calculating capitalism.

In the course of a surprisingly quick two hours (no intermission), we watch siblings Ben Hubbard (Marton Csokas), Oscar Hubbard (Thomas Jay Ryan), and Regina Giddens (Elizabeth Marvel) manipulate those around them in order to get what they want--shares in a profitable new business venture that will exploit the poor workers of their home town. They're each bastards, the only difference is the depths of their baseless behavior: Ben sells out his brother Oscar who sells out his son Leo (Nick Westrate); meanwhile, Regina uses her daughter, Alexandra (Cristin Milioti), to manipulate her sick husband Horace (Christopher Evan Welch). The few good people who remain are roughly treated--the servants Addie (Lynda Gravatt) and Cal (Greig Sargeant)--and in such a careless fashion that it's doubly demeaning. For instance, we'll see Birdie (Tina Benko), a slightly mad and manic woman, be bluntly and repetitively beaten by her husband Oscar: it is the epitome of senseless violence, for it serves nothing, and it's in this that Van Hove's coolness begins to dig at the back of the audience's skulls.

Van Hove's choices transform The Little Foxes into a play about emptiness, and he's talented enough to make that about as engaging as it can be. One deliberate choice is to hang a video screen as if it's a framed picture; Tal Yarden's design is then used to show the actions of off-stage characters--or, more often, their inaction (they're often either perfectly still or freeze-framed). It's also an uncomfortable--but effective--way to render characters as objects: on screen, there's a terrific argument between Regina and Horace; on stage, we see the eavesdropping Alexandra pleads for someone to intervene--everything falls on deaf ears. Later, there's a still image of Alexandra lying atop her father's body; this hangs over a scene in which the family bickers over stolen bonds and casts the entire thing in a much harsher context. It makes what everyone's ignoring all that more relevant, the beating of a tell-tale heart drowned out by greed. (It's also a fairly attractive and minimalist way of showing which parent Alexandra finds more human: the dead one.)

Whether this is still Hellman's The Little Foxes or not, the sheer artistry of the show--though a bit understated compared to previous Van Hove work at NYTW--makes for a provocative night of theater. It's a well-acted one, too: you can practically see the claws in Marvel's grasping speeches, and both Ryan and Csokas give her plenty of meat to dig into--the former with his twisting words, the latter with his ominous presence. As for Milioti, she's the heart of this piece--a burst of emotional concern amongst the black-and-white carelessness of her kin, which only clarifies the bleak tone Van Hove is going for. Rest assured, you'll leave the theater angry: hopefully it'll be more at the situation and less at Van Hove's brutal means.

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