Last night Flux Theatre Ensemble opened its captivating production of Kristen Palmer’s adult fairy tale Once Upon a Bride There Was a Forest as a big, slow Nor’easter prepared to slam New York City with days of cold wind and rain. But the play artfully lifts the viewer out of time and place and into a forested world of witchcraft, with compelling results. Palmer weaves a bit of Dark Shadows, a wee bit of Rocky Horror, a flicker of Twilight Zone and even a hint of The Wizard of Oz into a full-length comedy-drama-thriller perfect for a dark night when hopes seem thin.
Like many a fable, Once Upon a Bride begins in the humble everyday. In a grimy big-city apartment under an expressway, Warren (Chinaza Uche in his best work yet) once again asks Josie (a mesmerizing Rachael Hip-Flores) to marry him. This time she says yes, but the decision also jolts her to go in search of her father, who left her family when Josie was 12 and hasn’t been heard of since. Like Warren, Josie is something of a sentimental romantic; she wants her father to know she has grown into a fulfilled young woman – and to walk her down the aisle.
It’s a lovely scene suffused in honest, just-short-of-treacly love, the sort of thing Seinfeld made fun of in its “shmoopie” episode but which, as written and as performed by two actors with fine skill and great chemistry, only warms us to the two lovers.
If we hadn’t already sussed it out, when Josie declares she’ll be back in “a fortnight” we know we’re in for a fairy tale. Palmer is great at creating a mythologized universe by inserting just this sort of language oddity, then developing an otherworld with visible but tenuous links to reality.
Naturally, when Josie sets off on her quest her car promptly breaks down in a rainstorm in the woods. Hiking to the only nearby house, she’s met by a chilly, unctuous butler (Brian Silliman) who refuses to help until a twinge of compassion makes him suggest she pose as the new nanny the family is expecting. And we’re off. The Wright family boasts a howling baby only Josie can quiet; a meek father (Arthur Aulisi) who looks shockingly familiar to the sojourner; a domineering mother (Kristen Vaughan in a steely, painfully brittle performance enlivened by perfect comic timing) who has used witchy powers to create a perfect family for herself; and a blooming daughter, Belle (Becky Byers in a bewitchingly comedic turn). Will Josie escape the Wright’s prison of idle comforts? Will she find her father – or more accurately, will her father find himself? And when Warren turns up and the Wright women cast their spell over him too, will true love win out?
To single out a few of the fine comic and dramatic scenes and moments that elevate the production: there’s Belle’s flirtation with Warren in the coffee shop; Mrs. Wright’s horror at being finally handed the baby who stops crying only when Josie holds her; Mr. Wright’s confusion over his callused hands left over from his previous, nearly-forgotten life; and most wrenching of all, Josie’s desperate, mute appeals to both of the men in her life to just recognize her. Hip-Flores’s performance is just wonderful.
The second act feels a touch too drawn-out and the conclusion isn’t quite satisfying from a narrative standpoint, but the journey to the answers is both very funny and irresistibly touching. Heather Cohn’s nimble direction along with the technical aspects of the production – Will Lowry’s clever dark-wood set, Janie Bullard’s ghostly sound design, Kia Rogers’s atmospheric lighting – seem energized by the playwright’s many-hued pop-culture inspirations. Once Upon a Bride There Was a Forest is a fine entertainment for a dark and stormy night. It runs through December 20 at the 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, New York. Tickets are available online.