Through the generations, the resilient character of The Fox – both admired and feared for its cunning – has been a storytelling staple. They are referenced in works from Ovid’s tales, to Ben Jonson’s Volpone, more recently into Hendrix’ Foxy Lady and animated film The Fantastic Mr Fox. Ask any chicken farmer or environmentalist, unsavoury features of foxes make it difficult to celebrate their colonising success. Similarly, Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale is something of a mixed bag.
The show’s promotional material intimated that the piece was inspired by stories from Nikolai Gogol (The Overcoat), and Teolinda Gersão (The Red Fox Fur Coat). In the latter, an office worker transforms as she pays off a fur coat in instalments. When finally able to wear the coat, she leaves the city to make “her first leap as a wild animal ‘into the depths of the forest’”. Undercoat seeks to ask: “But what happens to this creature if her first, joyous leap is thwarted?”
Here, the woman in the red fox fur coat, known as She, (Caroline Lee, Jurassica) is unable to leap into the Australian bush as she’s confined within a car crash … by a flimsy unconvincing piece of fabric. This new arrival attracts the attention of three wild foxes: Ruber tha ruder Chicken Fox (Emman Annand, Absurd Person Singular), Ranger (Jean Goodwin), and Fox Vobiscum (Maude Davey, My Life in the Nude). Initially wary, the foxes interact with She, and debate how to respond to her presence.
Having an interest in Russian short stories and Magical Realism, I was quite looking forward to the performance. Although the setup was promising, matters technical and otherwise limited its appeal.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a modified La Mama setup with seating on three sides. However, punters are advised to be near the front of the queue. As one of the last in due to a poor choice in avoiding a puddle, I was only able to get a seat nearest the entry. As a result, I spent too much time looking at the backs of actor heads, and straining to hear dialogue directed to the opposite side of the theatre, especially when the sound effects were too loud.
Frustrations with the performance only accumulated from here. The initial appeal of Annand’s slowish rap faded with each reprise to the point where I came to regard it as filler. Some good features were indelicately handled. Dim lighting might imply uncertainty or imminent threat, but overused in extent and duration left us regularly unable to see the expressions of the performers.
A soundscape suited to one scene became jarring when allowed to spill into the next. A subtle flickering of lights on the ceiling to evoke fireflies would have been more effective if it wasn’t subject to rude blasts of light directed right at us that dispelled the magic. The piece wasn’t strengthened by superficial mentions of global warming, of the fox in literature, or “Similar Cases of Metamorphoses That Have Succeeded”.
Multimedia projections were used to introduce each of the seven scenes to mixed effect. Displaying “The (Obligatory) Dream” on La Mama’s stairs seemed at pains to make us aware that the author is aware of conventions. Although somewhat fox like, I think such a sly wink at this point was a curious indulgence, shifting our attention from the characters to the author.
Having enjoyed short stories or novellas from authors such as Yevtushenko, I have appreciated their poetic use of language as well as a lean vitality. Possibly relating to the audibility issue cited above, Undercoat seemed a bit scattered; I don’t know what’s “parafoxical” about it. I suspect the work was trying to stretch a few good ideas too far to span around 60 minutes.
Magnetic performances gave bright spots as the performers embodied fox qualities. Dressed in sequins and feather boa, Annand captured the confident posture of the wild fox in its own element, and their mystique through the ages.
Goodwin brought a vigour and calculating aggression suitable for the most wide-ranging predator on Earth. Davey’s elder fox showed a canny wisdom and wariness of new developments as she moderated the excesses of the younger foxes. Having the greatest opportunity for development, Lee evinced a sincere longing and desperation to escape her bonds and run with the foxes.
We can only judge what we can see and hear, and Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale may well be a better show than this experience revealed. Perhaps like the red fox it will adapt to its conditions, and put its best paw forward in later performances.
Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale
La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Performance: Wednesday 7 June 2017 – 6.30pm
Season continues to 18 June 2017
Information and Bookings: www.lamama.com.au
Image: Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale – photo by Daisy Noyes
Review: Jason Whyte