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Theater Review: The Mama Grizzly of The Little Foxes

Elizabeth Marvel (top) and Tina Benko in The Little Foxes.

Regina Giddens, the tactical, new-money Clytemnestra at the fulcrum of Lillian Hellman's High Left melodrama The Little Foxes, is more or less iconically synonymous with Bette Davis, star of the 1941 film version. (Tallulah Bankhead originated the role onstage.) Davis's Regina — archetypally “southern,” dangerously composed — barely needed to move to rule the movie. She’s like some possessed armoire out of Lovecraft, handsome and impregnable, looming in and out of scenes as if by levitation. Those famous flashing eyes did all the heavy lifting. And, needless to say, Bette Davis? Did not snort.

Elizabeth Marvel snorts. Unconsciously and repeatedly. When she laughs, when she cries. It's the snort of a creature that probably eats too fast, that confuses swallowing with breathing, consuming with merely respiring. Like Davis, Marvel has dark and hungry eyes that can swallow the world at full dilation. But her Regina is full-body performance, a desperate scramble at the center-snarl of a bourgeois feeding frenzy. In the thrillingly clammy hands of Dutch reconstructionist Ivo van Hove (best known here for directing Marvel in similarly bare-bulb-and-bare-knuckle reconstructions of Hedda Gabler and Streetcar), she strips away decades of community-theater airs and graces that have barnacled the role, to reveal a bruised but intuitive, half-feral yuppie sociopath, a woman for whom taking a punch is practically the same as throwing one. She stalks her prey in a dead velour jewelry box, denuded of everything but a silent organ, a tiny table, four cold chandeliers, and a staircase that starts in a disused fireplace and leads up, into oblivion. A lot of people get hurt on that staircase, but there’s no safe spot in the Tupperware vacuum where van Hove has sealed his characters. Even the light seems cut with razor blades.

Pain, given and received, is this Regina's metier, and the primary dialect spoken by the mythic Southerners of Hellman's grim clockwork fable. (Van Hove has, for the most part, dispensed with grits-and-gravy accents, which has the added bonus of leaving the oft-repeated word “nigger” naked and surprisingly startling.) The story pits Regina against her vampiric brothers (Marton Csokas and Thomas Jay Ryan), her high-minded but weak-hearted husband (Christopher Evan Welch), and, finally, her own daughter (Cristin Milioti), as the prospect of a lucrative new cotton mill (the dark, satanic William Blake variety) opens old wounds and puts blood in the water. Van Hove lavishly externalizes the implied violence of capitalism with punches, neck wrenches, wall slams, and sinuous pantomimes of sexual assault. These stylized, gestural jabs don't always hit their mark (the show's best moments are the less overtly directed, more interiorly acted ones), but they never fail to leave one.

Van Hove has no interest in subtlety, but neither did Hellman, really, so the match is a good one, even when the show’s super-text starts to bray a bit. Hellman wrote it as a call to arms against “those who eat the earth,” and Van Hove’s vision acknowledges that battle lost and instead seethes with pure entropy, coming close to celebrating it. The production notes prosaically claim this is “a study of how women of different races and classes contend with male aggression, power, and domination,” though that's really the least of what's going on. (The tendentious Hitchcock allusions in the sound design and on-the-nose song choices like “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” while fleetingly witty, feel a tad obvious, even for a vision this stark and brutal.) At its best, this Foxes embraces pure entropy, an avant-garde haunted house: Csokas, as Regina’s toothy, bullnecked elder brother Ben, is basically doing a pan-fried Nosferatu impression — and having a great time doing it. Ryan, as sniveling, snarling beta-brother Oscar, is even more frightening, a gelded sadist who likes to sock his wife, the pathetic ex-aristocrat Birdie (Not About Nightingales’ Tina Benko). Even Milioti, as Regina’s not-yet-disillusioned, slightly catatonic daughter Alexandra, becomes a kind of avenging demon-saint by the end. It’s a bumpy night, with no seat belts, and you’ll feel it in your ribs for days to come.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld