The environment — initially — appears to be spartan: a couple of benches on a black floor, in front of school lockers, which are also black. But the visual starkness turns out to be deceptive: After the lights go down — after a voice in the darkness begins to describe a wilderness teeming with monsters — you realize you’re witnessing a rich mingling of worlds.
Such is the feat Stephen Spotswood pulls off in his smart, unsettling, darkly poetic new play “In the Forest, She Grew Fangs,” on view in an intense production directed by Ryan S. Taylor for the Washington Rogues. A horror story that reinvents “Little Red Riding Hood” as a nightmarish account of bullying in high school, “In the Forest” is part timeless adolescent psychodrama, part harsh truths about growing up in our texting-and-social-media era, and part bloodshot fairy tale.
The narrative centers on a lonely teenager named Lucy, winningly played by Megan Graves as a yearning waif whose passivity doesn’t conceal her inner feistiness. Tormented by her schoolmates, who know about her mother’s drug use, Lucy develops a crush on a new student, the glamorous, moody Jenny (Jenny Donovan), who has a secret in her past. As Lucy experiences strange, lurid dreams — and as savaged deer carcasses turn up in the woods — the complacent town hurtles toward an episode of chilling ferocity.
Washington-based playwright Spotswood (“We Tiresias”) has shrewdly opted to tell his story partly through fragments of monologue shared by the major characters, who include Lucy’s grandmother Ruth (Jane Petkofsky, exuding brooding stoicism) and a high school football player named Hunter (an energetic Luke Cieslewicz). Hearing snatches of subjective reality — including Lucy’s accounts of rambles in a forest scarred by coal mining — you’re always on tenterhooks. Moreover, the monologues create a sense of pervasive loneliness and allow for the deepening of character and theme. Like Lucy and Jenny, Hunter and Ruth have suffered past episodes of abuse.
Also moving in and out of sight around the lockers are three chorus members (Megan Behm, Natalie Cutcher and Anna Lathrop), who wear red-and-black cool-kids attire and act as creepily stylized school bullies. (According to press materials, “In the Forest” grew out of a Twitter conversation between Spotswood and Taylor and is a response to contemporary awareness of bullying, as well as to recent U.S. school tragedies.)
Despite the sinister ambiance and grim focus, there is humor in the production, which is the Rogues’ first full-scale effort outside of the Capital Fringe Festival. Cieslewicz’s Hunter is a brash showoff, but he is also a little goofy, and he turns up at a Halloween dance in ridiculous-looking crusader garb, complete with chain-mail hood. (Jesse Shipley designed the show’s expressive costumes.) While emphasizing the pathos of Lucy’s situation, Graves also brings out the funny side of the character’s awkwardness.
The fight choreography could use polishing, but overall the austerity of the production — the minimal set; the deliberately cold lighting by Chris Holland, who also designed the set; the somber percussion in Veronica J. Lancaster’s sound design — seems in keeping with the desperation of the play’s persecuted heroines. In Spotswood’s reimagining of school life, there is no saved-by-the-bell.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Stephen Spotswood. Directed by Ryan S. Taylor; assistant director, Mary Cat Gill; fight director, Megan Behm. $10-$15. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 3 at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Visit www.washingtonrogues.org or www.culturaldc.org.