Clarity Hagan & Ve Reibel in The Forest and the Flames. Photo: Bill Brymer
The Forest And The Flames
By David Clark
Directed by Sarah Chen Elston
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
(This review was written after watching the final dress rehearsal on July 27)
David Clark has always been an inventive writer, injecting unique combinations of ideas into his plots to conjure fresh insights into human experience. In The Forest and the Flames, he fashions an unexpectedly complex yet still charming folk tale about the enigmatic fluidity of love, magic, and gender.
It opens with The Storyteller (a delightful Clarity Hagan) using marionettes to share a story about a girl and her parents that ends in tragedy and violence. It would seem to be a metaphor for the main plotline of a Girl (Hagan) who is tasked by an Innkeeper (Phil Lynch) with rescuing his child from within a magical forest.
In a series of visits, the Girl encounters a curious, mercurial character whose gender changes each day and who has no memory from the previous 24 hours. Salamander (Ve Reibel) encounters each day as a nearly new experience. They and the Girl quickly develop significant chemistry, but it is difficult to sustain it when Sal never remembers the Girl, and each new encounter has its own distinct flavor.
Because each meeting ends with a kiss and the two of them falling in love (quickly, like all good fairy tales) Sal begins having vague memories from the previous days, imagining riding a horse, and dancing for the first time. It emphasizes how Sal is not fully formed, and will never be fully formed while caught in this cycle of daily regeneration.
That regeneration and the depths of the experience tap into folklore and mythology ranging from the Hebrew Golem to the Phoenix bird rising from the ashes. It has been playing for far longer than the Girl can even guess and the largest implications of Clark’s story conjure ideas about the fundamental experience of humanity and that our identity is tied up in the superficial aspects of appearance and culture.
Which makes this arguably Clark’s headiest play, a worthy follow-up to god’s play, his work from the 2019 Derby City Playwrights Festival. Here he has toned down the absurdity and established a darker tone befitting iconic European folk tales before they were sanitized for our protection in America. But he has also quite easily woven gender fluidity into the narrative with supernatural undercurrents that make Sal the most powerful character. Without giving too much away, Clark also is unafraid to imagine a fluid morality, not exactly demonizing Sal but positioning them as the kind of force that is not confined by arbitrary definitions of good and evil.
Ve Reibel is perfectly cast as Sal, adroitly occupying an undefined space while still creating a highly specific and deeply felt character. I can’t imagine a better choice from the local pool of talent.
Erica McClure is nearly unrecognizable behind a mask but clear and solid as Johanna, the mysteriously scarred and overly protective Mother to Sal, and Phil Lynch emerges as much more than the Innkeeper who sets The Storyteller on their quest into the forest. Both are pros delivering good service here.
Yet it is Clarity Hagan who is the beating heart and the nicest surprise. I admire Hagan’s work as a playwright and am familiar with their work behind the scenes for companies like Looking for Lilith and Kentucky Shakespeare, but this is the first time I have seen them tackle a character that is in almost every scene of a two act play. They accomplish it with great energy and charm, employing a cherubic ginger countenance to express innocence while also channeling a steely dedication to a seemingly impossible mission. Hagan has no lack of authority on stage and carries the greatest burden in communicating the narrative with great success, proving they are a born storyteller.
Sarah Chen Elston’s production is deliberately paced and spare, exploiting the folk tale oral traditions and focusing on performance to tell the tale. There is some judicious but effective use of light and sound that is more suggestive than anything else, highlighting the slow reveal of background and context.
The Forest and the Flames is the one full production of a play from Derby City Playwrights, who is a partner in this years’ Fringe Festival, but there are several other DCP plays being given staged readings (including one by Clare Hagan) at the new The Old Louisville Coffee Co-op. All of the other, more unconventional work will be at The Whirling Tiger.
For a full listing of artists and schedule: Louisville Fringe Festival
The Forest And The Flames
Thursday 7/28 @ 8 pm
Saturday 7/30 @ 4:30 pm
Sunday 7/31@ 6:30 pm.
Part of the 2022 Louisville Fringe Festival
The Whirling Tiger
1335 Story Avenue
Louisville, KY 40206
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.