When considering Rebecca Chaleff and Rebecca Ormiston’s latest Stanford TAPS production, fox mirror forest, many words come to mind—haunting, fine-tuned, girlish, literally chilling in that my toes were numb post-show (a small price to pay for having the piece staged in Frost Amphitheatre). But the longer I consider this beautiful and crafty production, the word that continually jumps, or rather, drifts to the forefront is soft-core.
Don’t jump to any hasty conclusions about the graphic nature of this play—I mean this in a purely metaphoric, positive, even atmospheric sense. fox mirror forest struck me as a soft-core portrayal of gristlier issues, a deceptively gentle approach to something hard and dark: a smudged lens through which the audience is invited to peep at tragedy. This is, after all, a theater piece about a recently deceased children’s author (based off real-life author Rosemary Minard) who spent a portion of her childhood institutionalized. Given the piece’s compelling mix of child-friendly tones and bedtime language with hospitals, depression, and suicide, a velvet-edged approach is a brilliant tactic—the actors hold your hand and treat you so nicely that it takes a while to realize they’re also taking your pulse, leading you to a white room…
The piece starts out with an almost decadent concern for the audience: one wanders down the faintly-lit path to the soup-bowl of Frost, helps oneself to a variety of hot chocolate (!!) flavors at a station in the back, and settles into a cushioned seat in a startlingly intimate setup—only three rows of chairs, positioned directly in front of a three-walled ear-pink room. Era and place in fox mirror forest are pleasantly ambiguous, although the suggestion of tea parties and Voltaire does invoke a rather European gloom, with echoes of Narnia and Roald Dahl in the décor. The story of controversial children’s author unfolds backwards, from death to girlhood, and is presented to the audience as a sort of doomed attempt to shed some light on Rosemary’s childhood—a throttled childhood spent in an institutional setting rather like Girl, Interrupted meets Dead Poets Society. Her rich father pays for her to get special treatment from the nurses, hence the tea parties. She is a rapacious reader, blazing through the Marquis de Sade and the Brothers Grimm, but she is discouraged from telling stories, lest she appear unwell.
It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a man in a dress, and so I must confess that Kellen Hoxworth as the brassy nurse, eyebrow permanently cocked, stole the show for me. The head nurse, played by Bonnie Crocker, was a prima ballerina bitch (in the best way possible) with her deliciously long bony fingers ready to wag in Rosemary’s face. The sexy fox-duo weaving in between scenes (danced by Rebecca Chaleff and Kyle Gerry) contributed to the narrative’s myth-like headiness, and though I know admittedly zip about dance (save for what I gleaned from So You Think You Can Dance) I found myself mesmerized by the mammals’ lean lines and sleek scurry. Young Rosemary, played by Raquel Orendain Shrestha, was rather like McCauley Culkin as writ by Sylvia Plath, one of those annoyingly precocious kids who makes direct eye contact and calls you on your shit, rather brattish, not to be trusted with small animals; in the play, she bristles against her cozy surroundings and is attempting to communicate with a world hell-bent on shushing her.
Sage Behr was especially tickling as an under-socialized archivist, bringing to mind the Log Lady from Twin Peaks as she shuffled to and fro; just one look at her rumpled sweater and chummy peanut-butter-on-roof-of-mouth smile had me slapping my knee. Her companion, Nora Kelly, was dumpily delightful as the librarian, somewhat Susan Boyle-esque, and a major highlight of the piece was watching her toddle, books clutched to chest in the universal gesture of dweebdom, down the amphitheater steps at a frantic pace, screeching that the head nurse made her delete Rosemary’s cries for help (a series of notes written in the margins of the books she read).
The use of Frost amphitheater was nothing short of genius—when the back wall of the set came crashing down, revealing the steps of the amphitheater arrayed behind both audience and actors like a supine ribcage, I felt as if we’d truly fallen headfirst into some perverted fairytale. The positioning of the two remaining set-walls, framing the actors as well as the backlit trees at the top of the hill, evoked the miniature toy theatres of the Victorian era in a truly gorgeous way. The peak of the production was when the actors turned to face the inside of the Frost, mirroring the audience’s curious outward look, and who should come jaunting and bounding down the amphitheater steps but that slinky fox duo, their shadows frisking behind them like fox cubs! It was a truly marvelous moment, perfectly in tune with the childish motifs but also kinkier undertones. Given the scale of the amphitheater and the doll-like size of the furry muses, this dance break reminded me quite a bit of early Tim Burton clay-motion films, at once eerie and enchanting.
To return to the soft-core feel: one of the things I found most compelling about fox mirror forest were the erotic undertones which, along with the protagonist’s “expansive imagination,” were strategically contained by the politeness of adults. Just like our cooped-up protagonist, the audience must read between the lines to get a clear answer about what’s really going on in this tidy world of nurses and tea sandwiches (jammed into the painted mouth of aforementioned coquette Kellen). On this note of subterranean stirrings, I especially loved the scene where the librarians bow their heads in a moment of silence for “all who have become adults.” The audience tittered nervously, caught between identification with Rosemary and complicity with the nurses. While on the surface this is a play about a young girl and her fairytales, issues of sexuality and suffering shine through, rather like the seam of light under a shut bedroom door.
After the performance, I found myself reflecting on the sexual nature of the childhood reading experience—Judy Bloom, Annie on My Mind, YA novels that allow a pre-sexual child unprecedented access to bodies (albeit imagined ones). What worlds, desires, fantasies did books like Wicked and The Brothers Grimm open up for me? I would imagined they might’ve looked a bit like the fox’s feisty pas de deux, or Rosemary’s desire to brush the head nurse’s hair. I am certain more than a few fantasies revolved around a man in a dress (but I digress). One takeaway from fox mirror forest is that books can be dangerous, but they can also be tools, as evidenced by Rosemary’s attempt to communicate with the librarians through her unusual reading habits. How one chooses to use books, and moreover stories and words, can soothe, silence, unleash and, in certain cases, save a life.
Photo credits: TAPS Department