A fox in the surveillance-state henhouse

The American premiere of Dawn King's dystopian tale looks back to the future

There ain’t no foxes.

Haven’t been, it seems, for a long time in this who-knows-how-future England, at least that anybody’s seen. Some untold disaster has occurred – overhunting, environmental catastrophe, war – and life’s turned harsh. People are starving in the cities, where the factories still run but in a crude, dangerous, sweatshop way: you might last three years on the assembly line before it kills you. Hardscrabble farming, as backbreaking as it is, puts you in the lap of luxury in this broken-down land: at least you can get milk and eggs and a little bit of meat to toss in the stewpot. But watch out if your production goes down, because you can be replaced. Something really, really, bad has happened. And somebody – someTHING – is going to have to take the blame.

That’s where the foxes come in (or don’t) in “Foxfinder,” the English writer Dawn King’s dystopian stage drama that is having its American premiere in a taut and tasty production at Artists Repertory Theatre. It’s a four-hander, performed tightly and menacingly under Dámaso Rodriguez’ acute direction, and it revels in the sort of dystopian and post-apocalyptic atmosphere that successfully blends shards of medieval memory with warnings of contemporary disaster just around the corner. The play’s elliptical, a bit like a sci-fi Pinter, and yet it embraces old-fashioned plot: part of the fun in watching it is anticipating which of several possible directions it’ll take as it hurtles toward the finish line. Even more of the fun comes from just soaking in the skill with which the whole thing’s put together.

The Foxfinder is a sort of government supersleuth-slash-avenging monk, the long arm of a rigid yet probably shaky central organization that brings what little order exists to this society on the edge of utter disarray. It seems a bit like the Soviet Union on the eve of its crumbling: a fierce-looking edifice, still sharp and dangerous, but in imminent danger of just drying up and blowing away. Foxfinders are an elite corps of factfinders and snoops, a low-tech, religiously oriented NSA (are you listening? of course you are!) given free rein to do pretty much anything they want in search of their “truth,” which is in fact an elaborate construction of the Big Lie. And the big lie – or at least, this face of it – is this: foxes are demonic, and when anything goes wrong, it’s their fault, so they must be ruthlessly wiped out. In England, it’s foxes. In the American West, it’s wolves: the evil wild ones, the sources of fear. Echoes of the Inquisition are here, especially in the tortured logic that, twisted and turned obsessively, can prove the presence of foxes by their very absence.

Weinstein, Lee, Hennessy: three's a crowd. Photo: Owen Carey

Weinstein, Lee, Hennessy: three’s a crowd. Photo: Owen Carey

I love the casting in this show, and especially the choice of earnestly boyish Joshua Weinstein as William Bloor, the Foxfinder. Weinstein’s donning of a true-believer temperament, an innocence just beginning to turn, fits King’s canny decision to make the arm of the state not a cynical old hand, but a kid who actually buys into the whole thing. That colors his relationship with the farmwife, Judith (Sara Hennessy), who he seems to see sometimes as a sort of surrogate mother and ultimately as something very different; and with her husband, the blunt farmer Samuel (Shawn Lee), who can barely conceal his contempt for a kid who’s so obviously wet behind the ears. Amanda Soden completes the quartet as the neighbor woman Sarah, who’s aligned with a shadowy insurrectionary movement, and all four have secrets and contradictions that conspire to turn a bad situation into a disaster. King expertly amps up the trauma that comes from the pressures and deals and betrayals that become everyday business in a surveillance state, and the actors jump down the rabbit hole with temerity and fearful confidence. True belief and furtive apostasy duke it out, sometimes inside the same character. What’s private and what’s public get all mixed up, and what’s patently false but fiercely asserted can drive a person mad. That wild look in Lee’s jaundiced eye? Watch out: something’s clicking in the brain behind, and trouble’s brewin’.

Hennessy and Soden, airing the laundry. Photo: Owen Carey

Hennessy and Soden, airing the laundry. Photo: Owen Carey

I find “Foxfinder” fascinating partly because it sends me off not so much to other plays but to literature when I’m looking for comparisons. The 20th century in particular has a rich lode of dystopian stories, and different parts of “Foxfinder” are reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Walter M. Miller Jr.’s “A Canticle for Liebowitz.” But most of all it reminds me of the brilliantly paranoiac science fiction of the midcentury English novelist John Wyndham (“The Day of the Triffids,” “The Kraken Wakes,” “The Midwich Cuckoos”), and particularly his 1955 novel “The Chrysalids,” set in a post-apocalyptic Labrador amid a backward religious community whose old beliefs are beginning to break down. The future Labradorians don’t have foxes to worry about, but rather tailless cats and other mutants, human and animal. King’s dialogue is much like Wyndham’s writing, too, and like his model H.G. Wells’s: clipped and efficient and suggestive and suspenseful, letting go of just enough information at a time to propel the plot forward.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about that plot, because there’s enough of a mystery to “Foxfinder” that you really should discover it for yourself. (Don’t you just hate it when a story announces SPOILER ALERT and then goes ahead and gives the game away, as if you’re going to stop reading once you see the warning?) But I do want to put in a word about the excellent design. Doug Newell’s music and sound give the whole thing a moody, suspense-movie undercurrent. Gregory Pulver’s costumes lend a gritty, old-country, handwoven feel that emphasizes the technological regression of the future. And Kristeen Willis Crosser’s raked set leads to a perfect, almost cartoonishly skewed doorway upstage that sends a sly signal – Warning: something’s seriously off-kilter inside here.

Why, yes. Yes, indeed. Something is.

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“Foxfinder” continues through December 1 at Artists Rep. Check here for schedule and ticket information.

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2 Responses.

  1. It sounds a lot like my dance theater piece, “Descendants: A History of the Future” (PCPA 1990)—for 20 dancers and six actors…

    Beautifully written review, Martha, as usual. So very glad you are still at it!

    Blessings….Judith

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Judith, I agree that this is a beautifully written review, but I didn’t write it; Bob Hicks did. I remember “The Descendants,” with pleasure.

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