Are you turned on by foxes?
No? That’s probably good; that likely means you are a human with a (relatively) normal libido — and you are probably not, for instance, a roommate of mine who once professed to me his sincere attraction to the rabbit from Zootopia.
It is important to note, however, that furry communities do exist on this weird and wide world of ours, and as long as they are not acting unethically I am loathe to yuck their yum. People have all sorts of strange fetishes that will never make sense to me, but which also do not concern me in the slightest. First Love is the Revolution, though, wants you to be concerned — and not specifically about bestiality, which the play wields as a tool to make you take a hard look at uncomfortable truths. Rather, First Love examines the deluded notion that we civilized, upright humans are at our core any different from the myriad of species we torture, murder, and force into extinction every single day. And through this, of course, it also becomes a metaphor for how we treat each other.
We open on two teenagers who are both struggling to define themselves against the roles set for them by their single parents. Basti (Jordan Arredondo) is a human boy who feels more angry and stifled the more time he spends with his hypermasculine single father Simon (Jose Nateras). Rdeca (Isa Arciniegas), meanwhile, is a young fox just learning how to hunt — but the way her mother (Lucy Carapetyan) teaches her to kill her prey is bereft of empathy or respect, and Rdeca’s increasingly. . . well, human way of doing things is becoming unnerving to the whole pack. Our two protagonists first meet when Basti, out of boredom and frustration, attempts to capture a fox in the woods using a rope trap — but when the fox he captures, Rdeca, turns out to inexplicably possess the power of speech, she quickly becomes the only person Basti can talk to.
I went in knowing nothing about this play — and from the scene our interspecies star-crossed lovers first met, which had all the trappings of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic meet-cute, something in me immediately tensed. I am not sure I exhaled for the entirety of the 90-minute runtime. From the word go, First Love is the Revolution is a beautiful, stressful, harrowing roller coaster where the stakes and the discomfort grow exponentially with each scene.
This is achieved through several means: firstly, the set design from Arnel Sancianco perfectly captures a feeling of grunginess; constructed mostly of plywood and graffiti, it perfectly echoes the feeling of a crappy suburb where the wildness of the nearby trees hasn’t quite been tamed yet. Furthermore, the violence direction (Rachel Flesher & Zack Payne) and intimacy design (Sasha Smith) are both choreographed with an eye towards urgency, frenzy, and animalistic tendencies, keeping the atmosphere heightened.
The most effective element here is the way the violence and intimacy flow into the overall direction from Devon de Mayo, who, along with the whole ensemble, takes great care to give the script’s central idea (that is, the lack of true difference between animals and humans) a visual language. The actors portraying the family of foxes move like animals; they don’t use their opposable thumbs, they easily hop up and down onto different surfaces, and they huddle and snuggle rather than hug. The way they talk to each other, however? It all feels distinctly human. They bicker, and worry, and assume their argument is the only correct one. And so after a while, the movement starts to feel human too — but because it’s so animalistic and exaggerated, it feels more human than humans. We are watching our deeper thoughts in real time, the internal ballet of lust and ownership and pride made external through a savage, music-less dance.
And then when we pan over to the human family, we begin to see hints of animal-like behavior in their interactions. The actors do remarkable work here — they show many of the same emotions as the family of foxes, but these ones are disguised, couched, threaded into fancy human nonsense like language, clothing, and artificial habitats. For Basti, this is mostly expressed in his views about love. For his dad, however, his animal side comes out in the form of toxic masculinity.
For me, the spine that runs through this play is the mere cringe factor of watching an interspecies Romeo and Juliet play out — but frankly? That’s the easy part. That’s the part that makes you pay attention.
The hard stuff comes when Kalnejais forces you to reckon with your fragile place on the food chain. For all its genius, the tragedy of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers has a foolishly optimistic view on systemic violence. The idea that two teenage idiots and their collateral damage could single-handedly end the ancient grudge between the two houses always seemed strange to me. Playwright Rita Kalnejais seems to agree, because it’s right there in the title. First love — that throbbing teenage love that feels forbidden and exciting and a little bit nauseating — is not the end of the war, but the start of the revolution.
Basti and Rdeca aren’t tragic because they come from different worlds and can’t be together. They’re tragic because their attempt to bridge those worlds brings the whole fragile edifice crashing down. This dominance we humans have over the animal kingdom? This show makes that feel like a temporary truce. And because the animals in this play are human too, it follows that the peace we enjoy with our fellow humans is quite fragile as well, especially when we all exist in a system founded on violence and oppression.
In a world that feels increasingly unstable and unsustainable, First Love is the Revolution is a harrowing glance at just what happens when the last pin falls. It will make you incredibly uncomfortable, and that’s okay, because discomfort is a flashlight in dark times, inspiring us to find a way forward.
First Love is the Revolution was extended and ran at Steep Theatre through June 8th.
Gustina, Smulan: Jin Park
Rdeca: Isa Arciniegas
Thoreau, Rovis: Curtis Edward Jackson
Cochineal, Bailey: Lucy Carapetyan
Gregor, Quentin: Alex Gillmor
Simon: Jose Nateras
Basti: Jordan Arredondo
Gemma: Destini Huston
u/s Gustina, Gemma, Smulan: Zhanna Albertini
u/s Rdeca: Breanna Lind
u/s Simon, Thoreau, Rovis: Nick Caesar
u/s Cochineal, Bailey: Danielle Zuckerman
u/s Gregor, Quentin: Bobby Wilhelmson
u/s Basti: Collin Quinn Rice
Director: Devon de Mayo
Stage Manager: Lauren Lassus
Scenic Designer: Arnel Sancianco
Lighting Designer: Heather Sparling
Costume Designer: Mieka van der Ploeg
Sound Design & Original Music: Jeffrey Levin
Props Designer: Emma Cullimore
Intimacy Director: Sasha Smith
Violence Directors: Rachel Flesher & Zack Payne
Dramaturg: Sarah Slight
Assistant Dramaturg: Alisa Boland
Assistant Director: Am’Ber Montgomery
Production Manager: Catherine Allen
Technical Director: Alan Weusthoff
Scenic Painter: Jamie Kreppein
Photographer: Gregg Gilman