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‘The Little Foxes’ at the Bodley-Bullock House

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Voices from the past have filled the Bodley-Bullock House for the past few weeks, whispering and occasionally shouting about familial treachery.

This would be the right time of year for such spirits to arise in a nearly 200-year-old house, and people do say a ghost haunts the premises.

But more chatter floats to the high ceilings of the historic ­downtown Lexington house, which has been the home of a mayor and a general and even housed Union and Confederate troops at times during the Civil War.

These conversations are about props and costumes and scenes: The Bodley-Bullock House is now home to the inaugural performance by On the Verge Productions. That plot of family infighting and intrigue is the story of Lillian ­Hellman’s The Little Foxes, which the company is ­bringing to life on the first floor of the house. Each performance will play to a tiny audience that will move around the house as the action of the play changes rooms.

The idea for the production started with a group of actors ­sitting in a living room, reading plays.

They were at Joan Rue’s house, wading through scripts they could potentially ­produce, when Rue suggested The Little Foxes.

“It had that wonderfully clandestine ­feeling,” says Ave Lawyer, director of the production. “It felt like I was a guest in someone’s home where the hosts are ­behaving badly or having an argument off-camera. It had the sense of sort of being a fly on the wall or listening to something I shouldn’t be listening to.”

The play, written in 1939, is set in 1900 in a Southern aristocratic family’s home. The action focuses on Regina Hubbard ­Giddens, who aspires to high society but lacks the means. Her brothers, Oscar and Ben Hubbard, are wealthy because their father thought only sons should receive an inheritance. She sees her chance to move up in Ben and Oscar’s plan to build a cotton mill. They just need $75,000 from Regina’s ailing husband, Horace, and she’s determined to get it.

The story gets about as ugly as Southern literature can be.

“I thought, ‘I would love to do this play, but I want the audience to experience it the way I’m experiencing it,’” Lawyer says of that living-room reading. “I want them to have that feeling of, ‘Oops, I shouldn’t be listening.’”

It’s an experience most stage fans have had while in a theater with actors playing out intimate, wrenching stories in front of them.

Lawyer wanted to bring the actors and audience closer together. She wanted to ­present the play in a real Southern mansion. But the specific venue wasn’t clear.

Then Lawyer — whose recent works ­include Actors Guild of Lexington’s hit ­production of Arcadia earlier this year — ­recalled the Bodley-Bullock House from when she worked at Meridian Communications.

“I shot commercials here years ago and ­always loved this house,” Lawyer says, ­sitting in the parlor of Bodley-Bullock shortly before a Monday night rehearsal. “I thought, why the heck not?”

The Junior League of Lexington manages the 1814 house on Market Street and uses it as its headquarters.

When the chairwoman of the Junior League headquarters, Candy Thacker, was approached about housing The Little Foxes, she initially hesitated because she didn’t want theater accoutrements such as a stage brought into the house.

But she and the League quickly warmed to the idea when they learned that the house itself would be the stage and set.

“I think it’s going to be a fantastic ­experience,” Thacker says.

‘From one beautiful room to the other’

It’s different from recent productions in Lexington, but site-specific theater is not unheard of, even in Kentucky. Actors Theatre of Louisville has presented several site-specific works as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, including 2007’s Bachelor Party, staged in a nightclub, and a “car play” in 1999, in which ­audiences of three or four sat in the back seat of a parked car while the actors played out a story in the front seat.

Louisville’s Specific Gravity Ensemble was launched by presenting plays in elevators and has since presented other site-specific works.

The Little Foxes experience will be shared by a few more people than can fit in an ­elevator or the back seat of a car, but not many more. The play will have seven performances, from Sunday to Nov. 9, and each show will have an audience of no more than 16.

The audience will be seated in the room with the actors, who occasionally brush past the knees of patrons as they play out the story.

“In college I did some theater-in-the-round where the audience was very close,” says Rue, who plays Oscar’s alcoholic wife, Birdie. “But I have never had an audience on the set with me.

“It’s cinematic. It’s like being in a film without the bother of the cameras and ­equipment and the stopping and starting.”
The production is a different experience for all of the actors involved, most of whom have put in decades on local stages. That goes beyond the proximity of the audience.

Roger Leasor, who plays Ben Hubbard, says being in the house as opposed to a traditional theater helps him stay mentally engaged with the story.

“Here, the house does it,” Leasor says. Noting that in a theater, you usually exit from a gorgeous set to a dark, utilitarian back stage, he says that in this show, “We’re walking from one beautiful room to the other. All you have to carry is your intent and who you are because the geography is taken care of.”

Rue recalls rehearsing one night when a horse-drawn carriage tour of downtown clopped by.

“It really felt like we were back in the time of the play,” she says. “I hope that ­happens during performances.”

High ticket price the cost of intimacy

Because of the small number of seats available, 112 in all, the production is already nearly sold out, thanks to viral marketing, primarily by e-mail. Tickets are $50 each, and that covers the costs of the production, including the actors’ salaries. Complimentary wine, champagne and hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Because of the small audience and ­relatively high ticket price for a local ­production, Lawyer says, she has heard the complaint that this is an “elitist” event.

“The logistics and economics of site-­specific theater are a different animal to those of the conventional proscenium or even outdoor venues,” Lawyer said in an e-mail. “When working in a site-specific manner, the driving factor is not aesthetic or commercial — it’s the site, pure and simple.

“We’re working in a house with a fixed number of rooms with fixed dimensions. On stage we can move set walls. Not here. In an auditorium we can bring in extra chairs. Not here.”

Lawyer says the ticket price was meant to pay the people involved, cover the show’s expenses and provide seed money for On the Verge’s next show.

And there already is a next show: the prequel to Foxes, The Other Side of the Forest, which will be presented at the Hunt-Morgan House in May. Lawyer says her group hopes to do it in repertory with a revival of Foxes, because the Hunt-Morgan House is just across Gratz Park from the Bodley-Bullock.

She also says that Foxes could be ­presented in other locations. And with On the Verge, they are trying to imagine at what other venues they could produce site-specific plays.

“We’re like a traveling circus without a tent,” Lawyer says. “We want to provide extraordinary experiences as a group. It’s about taking plays out into the community and looking at Lexington as our stage.”

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2 Responses to “‘The Little Foxes’ at the Bodley-Bullock House”
  1. Hi, just wanted to say, Iliked this article. It was helpful.
    Keep on posting!

  2. Lexus Nx200t says:

    Excellent article. I will be facing a few of
    these issues as well..

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