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'Once Upon a Bride There Was a Forest': A Dark Fairy Tale

Kristen Palmer’s play about searching for lost loved ones enchants with Flux Theatre Ensemble.

Photos by Isaiah Tanenbaum

This time, when Warren asks her to marry him, Josie finally says yes, but she has a favor to ask first—a fortnight to take one last shot at finding the father who left her when she was twelve years old. And so begins this mysterious, dark fairy tale about the family we lose and gain, and a house that makes you forget about the life you lived outside of it. Kristen Palmer's Once Upon a Bride There Was a Forest, directed by Heather Cohn and performed by the Flux Theatre Ensemble, leads you into the enchanting and terrifying world of the Wright family, from which there may be no escape.

In this tale of weddings, long-lost fathers and escaping enchantments that beguile Josie into accepting a position as a maid with no end in sight, it is easy to dismiss this play as simply a light and insubstantial love story. Instead, Once Upon a Bride bears more similarity to the Grimm's style of fairy tales, dark and eerie with one character even demanding to cut off Josie's tongue to fulfill a bargain. 

In the surreal, perfect world of the Wright family, everything is almost too wholesome, from the soda parlor to Everett's job as both mayor and police chief of the tiny town. Except for the baby that won't stop screaming.

That's where Josie comes in, and her touch is the only thing that can quiet baby Margaret's constant wails of despair—perhaps because they so mimic Josie's own feelings of abandonment. In this mansion that seems to be imbued with the spirit of The Addams Family, only with more lace and frilly things, Josie is the spirit of love and of reality that shakes up their unchanging world.

The characters who come from outside the Wright household—Josie, her fiance Warren and father Everett—are all frustratingly fallible, easily becoming lost in the perfect world they've stumbled into, but it is that imperfection that keeps the play feeling human within its surreal setting. Josie's aimlessness and inability to decide what she wants from her life or her family is as exasperating as it is completely relatable, and Rachael Hip-Flores plays that line delicately as her character loses one of the men she loves the most while trying to reach the other. 

The parallels between Warren (Chinaza Uche) and Everett (Arthur Aulisi), meanwhile, as the lost men drawn by the allure of the Wright women, are fascinating. Their scene together as they discuss the woman they hardly remember they love is one of the highlights of the show.

Kristen Vaughan as matriarch Eugenia Wright is a terrifying villain without ever making outright threats, while Becky Byers' Belle is the perfect archetype of the well-meaning but clueless spoiled daughter. Perhaps the audience's favorite performance, however, was Brian Silliman as butler Mr. Livingstone, a character as entertaining as he is creepy and mysterious, and you can spend the entire play trying to discern whose side he is on.

The central conceit of Once Upon a Bride is the baby that won't stop screaming, and that element speaks volumes about the hidden terror permeating the Wright household. Indeed, some of the best moments in the piece are also the most heartbreaking, from Belle repeating the loving sentiments Warren spoke to her instead of Josie to Josie fighting to communicate with the men she loves in spite of her lost voice. As each little loving moment is twisted or forgotten, Josie has to realize how much she has risked and stands to lose in her quest to find her father.

Perhaps because Palmer has created the perfect enchanted trap for Josie and Warren, the moment of breaking the spell feels a bit forced, and it's unclear why at this moment things are finally able to change. The ending seems too neat, or at least too sweet and romantic for the otherwise eerie and subtly sinister play. 

The largely wooden set, scattered with empty picture frames and a dollhouse in the corner, evokes nostalgia in the best way, and that sense of remembering what one once had is crucial to understanding the play. The proliferation of birdcages may be too obvious in a play about entrapment, but they emphasize visually the loss of control and agency Josie so fears.

At its heart, Once Upon a Bride There Was a Forest is a sweet and charming love story, but what happens in the middle turns it into something far more exciting. The show runs through December 20 at 4th Street Theatre. For more information, check out their website.

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