Not since Romeo and Juliet has a first love caused such a… well, stir.
And while Rita Kalnejais’s First Love Is the Revolution is undoubtedly taking several cues from the tragedy of the legendary star-crossed lovers, the result is a wholly original, compulsively enjoyable, and deeply thought-provoking play that turns out to be one of the highlights of this spring’s theater offerings.
Did I mention that the love affair in question is between a teenage boy and a female fox?
Directed with rollicking spirit and just the right amount of darkness by Danielle Fauteux Jacques, this fable for adults, which runs through May 5 at Chelsea’s Apollinaire Theatre Company, achieves both a requisite silliness and the kind of stick-to-your-ribs drama that ensures that the play will remain somewhere near the forefront of your mind long after the cast takes their bows.
Basti’s mother has been sent away under vaguely traumatic circumstances, leaving him alone with his barely capable father, Simon (an excellent performance by Robert Cope), in a house that is in shambles. As the play begins at the start of a new school year, Simon promises Basti (an exceptional MacMillan Leslie) that this year will be better, but between not really fitting in at school and missing his mother, Basti isn’t in a great place.
He’s also on a new medication that keeps him up long after his bedtime, which is why he’s outside in the middle of the night setting a fox trap. He thinks that a new stole might cheer his mother up. That’s when he catches Rdeca (Hayley Spivey), a young female fox with some sadness of her own: Her father was recently hit by a car while kabob hunting.
Species be damned, the two quickly open up to each other and begin a rather unique love affair: He rids her of her fleas (which incenses her mother, played by Bridgette Hayes) and she teaches him to hunt, though it’s a shame that the chickens—played with showstopping hilarity by Caroline Keeler and Liz Adams—had to die; some of the evening’s best laughs belong to Keeler’s riotous portrayal.
As Rdeca seems to bring out the animal in Basti, he begins to bring out the worst in her: She turns rebellious, and her language becomes more and more profane. But as this darkly comic fable nears its climax, a late revelation brings about deadly consequences.
Hayley Spivey is a wide-eyed, likable Rdeca, and MacMillan Leslie is giving an extraordinary performance as Basti, certainly among the finest of the year. John Manning makes a big impression as an aggressive dog, as does Dale J. Young as the sweet but ill-fated Gregor Mole.
Nathan K. Lee’s panoramic unit set is fantastically creative, and Elizabeth Cole Sheehan’s costumes are a great deal of fun. Wearer of many hats, director Jacques is also responsible for the effective lighting design.
I have no qualms about the play itself, which is as daring and exciting a work as any in recent memory (it premiered in 2015 at London’s Soho Theatre). And while Jacques’ production is surprisingly riveting and exceptionally dark, the final moments could use some more finesse (and, dare I say, some blood).
For all the joy of this Revolution, it is the darker undertones that resonate most profoundly. There are a lot of issues touched upon by Kalnejais—some explored with more clear-sightedness than others—and Jacques ensures that the atmosphere is fertile enough for them to sprout.
The play touches on issues of animal welfare and the cruelty of humans, sure, but also on the complexities of love between two unlike people and our bewildering willingness to condemn that which we don’t understand. Given that the human in the relationship is played by a white man and the animal is played by a black woman, Kalnejais and Jacques not so subtly (but oh so fulfillingly) explore issues of gender and race as well, which layers in additional depth.
First Love Is the Revolution is one of the most refreshing things I’ve seen all year. Don’t miss it.
FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION. THROUGH 5.5 AT APOLLINAIRE THEATRE COMPANY, 189 WINNISIMMET ST., CHELSEA. APOLLINAIRETHEATRE.COM