ST. PETERSBURG — Freefall Theatre only lost a week opening its season, despite suffering the worst damage of any local theater from Hurricane Irma, putting on an incredibly bold and imaginative retelling of the Jack London novel. It is impossible to sit in the low, comfortable seats of Freefall's auditorium, not built as a theater space, and not feel a surge of admiration before the world premiere of White Fang starts.
Nor are the accoutrements of the experience anything less than remarkable. This show makes astounding use of puppetry (the title character, a wolf dog handled primarily by Robert Johnston), boasts an achingly beautiful soundtrack by Jonny Sims, and original songs by Gavin Whitworth and lyrics by Jethro Compton. Costumes befitting rough-hewn survivors, trappers and Indians in the Yukon Territory in 1898-1899 by Adrin Erra Puente also merit praise.
Compton, the British playwright behind White Fang, also directed the show, which he will next take to London to present with his own company. His director's note takes care in calling the work an interpretation of London's work, not an adaptation. His White Fang, while inspired by a book about an animal rejected by wolves and bullied by dogs as a pup, finds within those themes of alienation "an entirely new and original narrative."
This hint understates the staggering degree to which Compton has departed from London's work. If you were expecting any story resembling the book — in which White Fang grows up in brutal conditions, has three owners, is separated from his wolf-dog mother who later rejects him, kills other dogs in a fighting ring and is nearly killed before slowly settling into domesticated life — then you are in for a rude surprise.
This is instead a story about Lyzbet Scott, a teenager rescued as an infant by a raid on an Indian village. The man she calls her grandfather, Weedon Scott, is trying to reconcile his past, which includes the fact he was actually one of the men who helped slaughter Lyzbet's parents, something she doesn't know. Weedon saves White Fang (as in the book, though as a pup this time and under drastically different circumstances) and gives him to Lyzbet to raise. Michael Mahoney as the flawed but resolute Weedon sets the tone of the show with a performance rich in integrity.
Other men drift in and out of the small cabin, who we get to know in a great early icebreaker (between Alan Mohney Jr. as Beauty Smith and Daniel Schwab as Tom Vincent) reminiscent of a scene from Goodfellas ("Funny how?"). Into their midst comes the show's most compelling character and winning performance, Hannah Benitez as the hardy and self-assured Curly, who forms a friendship with Lyzbet.
Here's the rub, which happens to take up a huge portion of text and posit itself as the heart of the story: The story isn't about the dog, incredible as the puppetry is (An audience member said at intermission, "I wanted to pet him").
It's about Lyzbet. She is the one who feels culturally adrift, neither fish nor fowl. Her immediate conflict? Weedon has sold his property to Beauty Smith. She is scandalized. He wants to atone for his past before he dies of liver disease, using the money to send her college.
Lyzbet responds to this and lesser injuries with quick comebacks worthy of an essayist, homilies about her heritage — "This is my land. The land of my people. When I walk this land, they'll be with me." — that are every bit as stereotypical in their own way as the racism and sexism she spends the rest of the play fighting against. Moreover, Jen Diaz plays Lyzbet with a heavy-hand and is never especially believable.
This drama about land sales and possibly being shipped away to a reservation is supposed to mirror the inner conflict of the real White Fang, of whom London wrote, "The very atmosphere he breathed was surcharged with hatred and malice, and this but served to increase the hatred and malice within him."
Instead, as this playwright explains, we get a character "whose story is as real as the wolf's, whose story is one that I believe we should be telling and, in turn, listening to."
Except it isn't as real, which makes appropriating the title somewhere between strange and disturbing. You won't hear a scintilla of the original magic in this text that made London's work so memorable. You get instead a mixed bag containing many good things, starting with the grandeur and sweep of its vision. In the middle of it all, a writer with no small degree of talent himself inserts a character who didn't exist into the heart of a great work, imbues her with conflicts far less universal, and saddles her with a 150-pound backpack of sermonettes to deliver about discrimination and the environment.
Within that, you'll also see some fine performances and truly inventive stagecraft. That's a heck of a tradeoff, one I find difficult to reconcile.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.