The Fez and The Sandalwood Box

Two mischievous “dwarves” in red watch from behind a dresser as Professor Higgins startles his servant at the turning point in the Bats’ production of The Fez by Mac Wellman, paired with Wellman’s The Sandalwood Box as part of The Flea’s Perfect Catastrophes Festival of Plays. Original photo by Marina McClure.
We've rated other shows in this collection from two to five stars. Where does this double-header fall on the scale?

By Andrew Andrews

This back-to-back production pairs two of Mac Wellman’s shorter plays into a single performance: The Fez, which was commissioned in 1998 to be printed on T-shirts, and The Sandalwood Box, published in Conjunctions revolutionary theatre issue in 1995. Part of The Flea’s Perfect Catastrophes festival honoring their co-founder, the show is billed as the world premiere for the two works.

Opening with a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, all hell breaks loose in The Fez when Eliza Doolittle literally—and I mean literally—pulls the plug in the middle of Act II, releasing a barrage of so-called “dwarves” dancing like choreographed, meth-headed Oompa-Loompas.

In The Sandalwood Box, a mute student and prop girl at Great Wind Repertory Theater, gets lost in the rain forests of South Brooklyn, where she encounters a strange professor who somehow vitrifies the world’s most interesting catastrophes and stores them in—you guessed it—a sandalwood box. Narrated by a chorus of voices, the story flows like a real-life dream that includes a bus driver reciting a poetic monologue, and an ape-like monster named Osvaldo.

Wellman’s script for The Fez only mentions that it begins with the top twenty-two minutes of a “better class” play “properly inflated with moral updraft,” and Shaw’s out-of-copyright Pygmalion feels like the perfect choice. The audience for our performance really seemed to get the joke during the first act as they watched the story unfold, either from knowing Shaw’s work or, at the very least, recognizing the story from My Fair Lady. The Victorian costumes were gorgeous, and the lighting and sound design provide a wonderful proxy for Saint Paul’s Church on the barren basement stage of The Siggy. Director Michael Raine’s interpretation of the one-page script is genius, and although the choreography of the dancing dwarves could be a little tighter, it would probably only detract from the mayhem of the piece.

Fortunately, this production spares us the twenty-two minute fade-to-black conclusion that the script calls for, replacing it with a brief, dimly-lit change of set before transitioning into The Sandalwood Box. Although I didn’t enjoy this second play as much as The Fez while I was taking it in, the more I think I about it now, the more I appreciate the realistic surrealism that one finds in a dream: specifically, how a sequence of events that would never gel together in real life can make perfect sense as you watch a nightmare unfold as you sleep. Although I find Wellman’s trademark overlapping voices more annoying than ingenious, it didn’t feel problematic here, and unlike The Invention of Tragedy, the pacing and tensity were strong enough to keep us engaged.

Walking out of the theater, I was planning to give five stars to The Fez and three stars to Sandalwood, averaging them together for a four-star rating. Bumping the latter play up a star for making me appreciate it more as I look back, I’m faced with the dilemma of rounding 4½ stars either up or down. Despite the fact that you’re getting two plays for the price of one, the total running time clocks in at barely over an hour, making the price tag feel just a little too high for such a short performance, even considering what a great job the cast and crew have done here.

4

Andrew Andrews attended The Fez and The Sandalwood Box at The Flea Theater Siggy Theater in New York on Monday, September 30, 2019 @ 7:00pm to write this review.

Next Up:

Water, Water Everywhere…

Find out whether this immersive experience is worth the ferry ride to Governors Island!

Read It Now!