“Like a fox in a henhouse.”
It’s an evocative idiom, one that suggests manipulation or exploitation, an untrustworthy figure taking advantage of a situation for their own personal gain.
It’s also an underlying theme behind The Fox at Stratford’s Here for Now Theatre, directed in its world premiere production by Kelli Fox.
An adaptation by Daniela Vlaskalic of D.H. Lawrence’s novella of the same name, the play follows two young women, Jill (Siobhan O’Malley) and Nellie (Allison Plamondon) in their attempts to maintain their independence by running a dilapidated farm. Reminders of the recently-ended First World War and the ongoing Spanish Flu epidemic are distant concerns to the women as they struggle to raise the livestock that will see them through the winter.
The arrival of Henry (Callan Potter) – a young soldier recently returned from the war, and the grandson of the farm’s previous owner – quickly upsets this small household’s equilibrium.
Extenuating circumstances force Henry to stay with the women, and what starts as a brief visit quickly becomes a longer-term arrangement. As the relationships between the characters grow and evolve, motives are called into question, leaving the audience to wonder who of the three protagonists is that metaphorical, conniving fox.
The Fox is a play of often-unanswered questions. We don’t know the true nature of the women’s relationship before Henry’s arrival, nor the motivations behind Henry’s eventual (seemingly) fast-burn romance with Nellie. This is in part due to Vlaskalic’s frequent use of time jumps (effectively signaled by the use of brief soundscapes) which leave the audience wondering what it is they aren’t seeing. And from the creative use of a (literal) Chekhov’s gun, to characters who become increasingly complex as the play goes on, the few answers we do get often subvert expectations.
Each of the production’s three actors bring performances which add to this intrigue. Plamondon compassionately portrays the hesitant warmth and vulnerability behind Nellie’s outward quiet stoicism, and O’Malley expertly layers the more complicated undertones beneath Jill’s cheery and polite exterior. By contrast, Henry’s steady characterization provides a strong counterpoint to this shifting, and Potter’s portrayal feels natural and grounded.
Here For Now’s venue serves the play’s rural Ontario setting particularly well. Darren Burkett’s set evokes a farmhouse kitchen and dining room, and during evening performances, the use of warm lighting and candles (lighting design by Sarah Lappano) becomes increasingly atmospheric as the sun sets, creating a space which is equal parts cozy and confining. Fox’s direction also makes excellent use of the space, with actors delivering lines from the tent’s open sides, exiting through the audience, and moving beyond the periphery of the tent. The fact that the audience is facing towards the tent’s open ‘backstage’ and the farmer’s field beyond only heightens the immersion.
Vlaskalic’s The Fox is the latest of several adaptations of Lawrence’s novella, including a 1967 film directed by Mark Rydell, and a 2008 play by Allan Miller. Vlaskalic’s adaptation is unique among these previous iterations in its voice and context – a female, Ontario-based playwright has transposed the action of a male, English writer’s story about two women from England to Ontario – but I would have liked to have seen Here For Now more specifically recognize Lawrence’s original work.
While Vlaskalic’s personal website notes that the play is an adaptation, Here For Now – aside from a brief nod in Fox’s director’s note – does not. This is a play that’s fascinating to compare against its source material, raising questions of how the Canadian context changes the nuances of the story, how lines of dialogue resonate differently when spoken aloud rather than read, and how adjustments to plot beats shift audience perceptions of character (those familiar with Lawrence’s story will still be surprised by the ending of Vlaskalic’s version).
At its core, The Fox questions what it means to have autonomy, and shows that labeling any one person as an antagonist is often a more challenging proposition than it seems. It’s an intriguing premise, well-executed by the team at Here For Now, and one which shows the potential of even small adjustments in the process of adaptation to uncover new meanings within old stories.
The Fox runs at Here for Now Theatre until September 9. Tickets are available here.
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