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FOXFINDER streamed from New Phoenix Theatre lets us peek over an edge that is both too familiar and too creepy

THE BASICS:  Presented via Vimeo by the New Phoenix Theater, where it was filmed, there are four more showings of FOXFINDER by British playwright Dawn King, directed by Mike Doben:  Friday and Saturday, May 1, 2  and May 8 and 9.  Unlike some offerings, viewing is limited to the day selected with each ticket sold just for the day of the performance.  The link is usually sent around 5 pm and you have only that evening to watch the performance, as in a regular run.  This “day of” system, not my favorite, was stipulated in the contract from the play’s London agent.  Runtime: Well under 2 hours.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  To prevent the imminent demise of England’s farming economy, the government has dispatched “Foxfinders” to find and remove the designated cause of the problem – foxes.  Don’t laugh.  In fact, the apparent (to us) ridiculousness of this theory is what gives this play its power. What are the foxes in your life?

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: England’s economy is suffering, farms are flooded, quotas are down, and the population could starve if the problem isn’t identified and resolved.  Now the government has fingered one group of outsiders, in this case, foxes, as the culprit.  We’ve seen this before, demonizing “the other,” whether it was Jews in Germany in the thirties, or the Japanese in America in the forties, or communists Hollywood in the fifties, right up until today when it could be caravans of criminals coming up from Central America, Chinese or other Asian-Americans responsible for Covid-19, Democrats stealing the 2020 election, or socialists, or the political correctness police, or cancel culture, or Planned Parenthood.  Or, it might be your neighbor, the guy who helped you with that home-repair project, but who had a “Vote Trump” sign on his lawn.  Or was it the other neighbor with the Kamala Harris sign on her lawn?

And so, in order to prevent the disaster that could be on the horizon, trained “Foxfinders” are dispatched to ferret out these, up to now, invisible threats.  The very absence of evidence (nobody has seen a fox nor heard a fox nor seen fox tracks – neither the farmers, nor the Foxfinders themselves) is simply proof of the fox’s cunning and subtle ways.  In fact, denying that foxes are on your farm simply means that you are a collaborator and that they have you under their power.

And if you are going to be under anyone’s power, it damn well better be the government, which knows what’s best for you, even if your farm has been in your family for generations.

As the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth” put it: “Paranoia strikes deep / Into your heart it will creep. / It starts when you’re always afraid. / Step out of line, the man comes, and takes you away.”

And so we meet Judith and Samuel Covey (Stefanie Warnick and Rick Lattimer) who have failed to meet harvest targets and now, following up on an ominous letter, must feed and house a trained “Foxfinder,” William Bloor (Zach Thomas) as he starts his investigation.  As Judith tries to discuss the situation with her husband, Samuel starts behaving more and more like a Q-Anon believer himself.  Will her sympathetic neighbor Sarah (Rachel Buchanan) provide some clarity, or will she too succumb to the paranoia?

This is not new territory for Dawn King, who has adapted Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD for the stage, created what was described as “an immersive rave” called DYSTOPIA987, and has a play call CIPHERS described by The Guardian as “An ingenious thriller about spies, surveillance and doubleness.”

This project seems to have been a labor of love on the part of The New Phoenix Theatre.  The sets are believable, the costumes as well, and the lighting and especially the background ambiance are spot on.  The direction is sure and the camera shots are effective, unlike with some other plays on video where the camera seems to move simply because the director doesn’t trust the actors nor us in the audience to stay focused.  Mike Doben respects his cast and his audience.

Rick Lattimer

Without a doubt, I wanted to watch this because of actor Rick Lattimer, whom I often think of as Buffalo’s answer to Bruce Dern, or Christopher Walken or perhaps Steve Buscemi.  Rick takes on the weird edgy roles and makes them his own and has appeared in a number of dystopian plays including FARENHEIT 451, also directed by Mike Doben or SHE KILLS MONSTERS, or THE KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.

He never overplays his roles.  He embodies them.

I was also interested in seeing Stefanie Warnick who usually works with “The Brazen Faced Varlets” theater company but not always, and was kick-ass in SHE KILLS MONSTERS and, like Lattimer in this play, doesn’t over do it.  100% believable.

Newer to me was Zach Thomas as the Foxfinder last seen in MERCURY FUR, another dystopian / futuristic play directed by Mike Doben.

And Rachel Buchanan, last seen by me in FARENHEIT 451 (Doben directed) was, as were the others on stage (or on my TV screen), equally believable.

I gave it a “Four Buffalo” rating, and not a Five, simply because streamed plays just don’t have the impact of live theater.  For just one example, Stefanie Warnick is not only tall but she is a fight coordinator and has a strong physical presence on stage.  Actor Zachary Thomas is much smaller and, as the script calls for, is extremely thin. Yet his character is able to physically overpower hers using only veiled threats. That would be much, much creepier on stage.

Before you say “that’s unfair, the theaters are doing the best they can in this unusual time of the pandemic” let me say this: We have tried to watch broadcasts of Shakespeare plays which were filmed at The Stratford Festival, a place which, if you’re there, is pretty much the gold standard for North American Shakespeare productions.  We have tried to watch the very productions which we saw just live awhile ago, which, at the time when we were there, were completely enthralling.  On our television?  “Meh” is a good word.

It’s not just theater.  I was recently part of a very small, socially distanced “test audience” for some live classical music presented by a group which I had been watching via live YouTube streams.  So I could actually do an A/B comparison.  It wasn’t just a “thought experiment.” The effect of “live” was much, much, much more emotionally compelling than I expected it to be.  We all say “Can’t wait until we’re all together again in the theater” but I’m promising you that it’s going to be really, really good.

However, in the meantime, support your local theater, even if you can’t be there right now.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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