Lucy (Megan Graves) pushes back against a bully (Natalie Cutcher) in The Washington Rogues' production of In The Forest, She Grew Fangs.
In the Forest, She Grew Fangs is a new play with some classic folktale references. And while the thriller makes clear references to Little Red Riding Hood, it's not an adaptation, but more of a loose re-imagining. It is, however, pretty dark.
Megan Graves stars as Lucy, an introverted loner who is often bullied by her high school peers.
"When we meet her in the play, she's sort of at a breaking point where the bullying that she's experiencing at school and the loneliness that she's feeling after being abandoned by her mother is kind of coming to a head," Graves says, "And at the same time, this new girl appears in town who sort of inspires her to change her life in a very dramatic way."
That new girl's name is Jenny, and she's also bullied, albeit for different reasons. Graves says that almost all of the characters are bullied at some point or another.
"Jenny is bullied for being a slut, [which] is what the other girls call her, and Hunter talks extensively about how he was bullied in middle school and changed his image to then become the bully himself," Graves says.
She says the difference boils down to how they handle it. "I think actually Jenny comes out being the one who handles it in the most adult way, which is to sort of shrug it off and throw it back verbally, whereas Hunter and even Lucy, in the end, become physically aggressive."
Although she's initially shy and withdrawn, eventually, something in Lucy snaps and she decides she's not going to take it anymore. Just like that, the roles are reversed.
"Lucy starts out very much the victim, but the way she handles that in the end is to then become the aggressor," Graves says. "Granted, against people who have hurt her, and in her mind, deserve it. But she's perpetuating the problem in a way."
Graves is a company member of The Washington Rogues, which is co-presenting the play with CulturalDC. She says her biggest challenge was portraying her character's dark side without "going full wolf."
"It's a coming-of-age show that involves things that aren't exactly human, so, by the end of the show, Lucy's not entirely human," she says. "But it was really important to me that I still capture the essence of her human emotions in that."
Even though Lucy's response is extreme, Graves says it's hard not to root for her. "Every emotion that she has springs from this place of being victimized," she says. "What happens at the end is horrible, but we are kind of cheering for her."
Graves says that playwright Stephen Spotswood wrote most of the characters with tremendous empathy.
"Even the people that we are set up to believe are the antagonists or who are the bullies, we learn through their monologues actually have a lot of pain in their past," she says. "My hope would be that people would walk away with more of an understanding that there's no black and white, especially in a story like this. There's not just one good guy and there's not just one bad guy. It's a little of both, and that kind of reflects life in a lot of ways.
Spotswood says the characters in Fangs switch off, so that they alternate between being Little Red, the Big, Bad Wolf and the Huntsman.
"One of the reasons that I've kind of been playing with the Little Red Riding Hood motifs is that you have monsters and you have victims and you have heroes. And throughout the play, just about every character is all of those things at different points," he says.
Spotswood says Fangs started with a project he was working on at Forum Theatre. He and other artists were prompted to explore the topic of gender identity, and he wound up writing a series of spoken word poems. When he later decided to use the material for a play, ideally within the horror genre, one poem stuck out in particular. "It was about a girl sitting in church thinking about the girl sitting in front of her and just wanting to bite the back of her neck," he says.
But halfway through the first draft, Spotswood read a story that deeply impacted the direction of his show. "It was a profile of a county in Minnesota where a whole bunch of high school students had committed suicide or attempted suicide because they were either gay or were perceived as gay and were bullied," he says.
Spotswood says that as the play evolved, bullying emerged as one of the central themes. He says if he and the rest of the team do their job correctly, the audience should recognize the parallels between what happens in the play and what's happening in society.
"You should have that feeling of rooting for the person who ends up being the monster and having to walk away thinking about what that means, because nobody starts out the monster," he says. "They become it."
Spotswood says he specifically requested to have the show run during Halloween. "It was kind of a no brainer," he says, adding that's it's not just because of the show's horror elements. "The events of the play take place from the start of the school year through Halloween, and there is an actual Halloween dance in the play. There are people in costume."
On October 31, there will be a post-performance party. Spotswood says audience members are encouraged to come in costume, and will receive discounted tickets for doing so.
In the Forest, She Grew Fangs is on stage at CulturalDC's Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint through November 3.
[Music: "Woods & Yonder Sky" by Travis Shane from Universal Kanteen]