Foxfinder is More Murky Than Mysterious

The set-up:

Foxfinder won a playwriting contest and was produced in a small West End theater in London in 2011, garnering good reviews. It is a small-scale drama, exploring the impact of a long-running, governmental witch hunt. The hunt is for citizens who may be conspiring to protect a fox, which is contaminating farms.

The execution:

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There is a very minimal set, by Greg Dean, with a large wooden table serving as a kitchen table for the opening scene between Judith Covey (Patricia Duran) and her husband Samuel Covey (Bobby Haworth). The pair are farmers, living a hardscrabble existence, with crops failing. But the couple has an urgent concern - they are awaiting the arrival of a government investigator, William Bloor (Kevin Lusignolo), coming to evaluate whether their farm has been contaminated by the fox. If the farm is condemned, it's off to an assembly-line factory, with rations of one egg a week, as opposed to the wealth of food available on a farm.

I would normally conclude that the stakes are high, but Duran plays Judith with an unvarying grim expression, a turned-down mouth, and a shrill voice, making me wonder whether the cheek-by-jowl easy camaraderie of a factory might not be a welcome change. Haworth, however, is a remarkable actor, and his portrayal creates interest, plausibility, and excitement, as he is caught up in an obsession to kill the fox. It is a fine, gripping performance, and the chief reason to see the play.

Lusignolo is a talented actor - he made a minor role in The Crucible 18 months ago into a cameo jewel of forthright integrity. Here he plays a protocol-dependent bureaucrat, a bit of a bumbler, and the fact that he is celibate, instead of adding subterranean tension, simply permits four separate cringe-making sexual moments onstage. Director Huff might have found a way to make Bloor compelling instead of a dullard, especially since Bloor appears to become infected with demons in the play's denouement. Michelle Edwards portrays a minor 4th character, an untrustworthy, self-serving neighbor.

I cling to the belief that theater can create magic, that illusions can be woven out of skill and trust and inspiration. But illusion is not only shattered, it is trampled on when actors break character about ten or twelve times to cart the large table upstage (still in full view) when they are "in a field", cart it back for another kitchen-table chat, then upstage again for Bloor's bedroom, downstage again angled differently for a neighbor's kitchen, and then back to the fields, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Frequent set changes are a problem, but there are solutions; this tactic is not one of them.

Last year's Big Animal Games from Mildred's Umbrella and the same director had a high-gloss finish that was captivating; here, the clumsy set changes look like a staged reading. This work really is a teleplay, not a theater piece; it would work better with mist on the moors, and an eerie aura of fear of the fox, where atmospherics might disguise its thinness.

The play takes place with no intermission, but I divided it in my mind into Act One where nothing happens and Act Two where a lot happens. Playwright King has a heavy-hand with her satiric impulses, and she hurls her javelins in all directions, though there are some amusing lines. She tackles red tape, sexual repression, hypocrisy, betrayal, venality, prostitution, obsession, extortion, faith-based beliefs, paranoia, and hysteria - much like a circular firing squad. But only Haworth finds the humanity to make his character interesting and authentic.

The verdict:

A play that is more murky than mysterious falters, but Bobby Haworth shows that a rose can bloom in a desert, and that a gifted actor can be better than his material.

Foxfinder continues through August 31, from Mildred's Umbrella, at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St., at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and pay-what-you-can Mondays. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0409 or contact www.mildredsumbrella.com or info@mildredsumbrella.com.

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