World premiere, new frontier: freeFall sinks its teeth into Jack London's White Fang

Turn of-the century Alaska in contemporary St. Pete, through British eyes.

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White Fang

freeFall Theatre Company, 6099 Central Ave., St. Pete. 

Oct. 5: 7 p.m., preview. Oct. 6-29: Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Oct. 15 & 29, 7 p.m.



click to enlarge Jen Diaz appears as Lisbeth in Jethro Compton's White Fang. - Thee Photo Ninja
Thee Photo Ninja
Jen Diaz appears as Lisbeth in Jethro Compton's White Fang.

The central character in Jack London’s 1906 novel White Fang is a hybrid wolf-dog, coming of age in the violent, untamed Yukon and Northwest Territories during the late 19th-century gold rush.

It’s full of bloody allegories and less-than-subtle connections between the brutality of nature and the brutality of man, as White Fang uncomfortably straddles both worlds on his way to maturity.

Bringing London’s story — a sequel of sorts to his classic The Call of the Wild — to the theater stage was a challenge that British playwright and producer Jethro Compton could not resist.

“My knowledge of America is pretty much from movies and television, and reading stuff,” admits the Cornwall-born Compton, whose best-known work, a 2014 stage adaptation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, successfully blended history, imagination and first-rate stagecraft.

The Stage, in its rave review, said that Compton’s play “boldly treads its own path by using the original tale as a launch pad for a highly atmospheric, visceral and triumphant adaptation that audaciously takes an unfashionable genre and makes it resonate loud and clear.”

Compton’s hoping frontier lightning will strike again as he and freeFall Theatre Company Artistic Director Eric Davis are producing the world premiere of White Fang as the theater’s season opener. It bows Friday, Oct. 6, with Compton himself directing, marking the first time freeFall has done a show in its big auditorium, says Davis, although half of the room will be curtained-off to give it the intimate feel of the company’s black box, which was damaged by Hurricane Irma.

Compton has long been attracted to stories set in the early, unsettled United States.

“I like that the environment where these things take place is so inhospitable and dangerous,” he explains. “It’s life and death. And it allows people to have big conversations that I think would feel out of place in a modern day coffee shop or whatever. So it allows you to deal with bigger issues, and for people to have these big conversations.

“And there’s a safety net in writing something that’s a period drama. I can disguise my voice in a period drama, and in the voices of other characters within a genre. That if I was to write something that’s very clearly contemporary, I’d feel a lot more exposed as a writer.”

He’s quick to point out that his work is a “re-imagining” of the London book, as opposed to a literal stage interpretation. As a writer, he not only has to make tough decisions about where to point his adaptation, but which parts of the source material — including characters and relationships — he’ll use.

“Actually,” Compton says, “this White Fang is almost a completely original piece of work. It’s just inspired by the novel. And the central narrative and the struggles are the same, but the plot is completely original and not from Jack London.”

click to enlarge Artistic Director Eric Davis, left, and playwright Jethro Compton. - Bill DeYoung
Bill DeYoung
Artistic Director Eric Davis, left, and playwright Jethro Compton.

Most noticeably, the narrative isn’t told from White Fang’s perspective. “In the book, it’s a story of redemption, and the central character — the wolf — has to go through these horrific things pretty much all the way until the very end of the book. And then you finally get a glimpse of hope.

“And I felt that to put that onstage, we’d lose the entire audience at the interval, because it would just be so bleak and unforgiving.”

That’s when his creativity went into overdrive.

“I felt it was important to have a human at the center of the story,” Compton says. “I want a central character that’s human, that we can connect with as an audience. I was looking at the novel — the wolf goes and lives with a Native American tribe for a large part of the first part of the book. I thought OK, this is interesting to me — it’s a story that I’ve never seen onstage.”

And so the play revolves around a young Native American woman — a “First Nations girl,” in Compton’s words — called Lisbet. “It’s suddenly a very different story to the story of the wolf, although the central struggle is exactly the same. The novel, for me, is about identity and redemption — and that’s what this play is about. It’s just that they find a different path to get there.”

freeFall came into the picture when Davis, intrigued by reviews of Liberty Valance and a trio of Compton’s original Western plays, looked him up online.

“When I learned that he had his own production company, and was producing work, that was very interesting to me,” Davis says. “I thought his work was, in many ways, sort of a crossover to our aesthetic here and some of our values. And also some different points of view than we already have here.”

E-mails between St. Pete and London led to an agreement to develop White Fang at freeFall — placing the theater’s entire creative team at Compton’s disposal — before its debut in the U.K.

When Compton explained that White Fang was to be played by a puppet, Davis didn’t flinch. Although freeFall used puppets extensively in Fiddler on the Roof and other shows, “this is definitely the most puppetry we’ve had onstage,” says the director.

Again, a challenge too good to go unmet.

“My falling in love with puppets onstage happened when I was in the original cast of Finding Nemo the Musical,” Davis explains. “And the puppetry director for that show, James Silson, is doing the puppetry direction for this. I’m designing the puppets, physically, but then James works with me to determine how we want them to work, and how that vocabulary will work.”

Onstage puppeteers are essential, to coordinate the wolf’s movements, from the big things — walking and running and fighting — to tiny movements like the turn of a head or the flick of an ear.

“Just think of every move it makes,” Davis adds. “And more than an actor, because with an actor you can just say ‘cross over there,’ and their mind makes all of their muscles move.”

For Compton, the combination of human actors and puppets (and no, the wolf doesn’t talk) is a beautiful form of creative license.

“You obviously don’t want to disappoint fans of that novel, but also I don’t want to just try and replicate that novel onstage,” he says. “Because I will never be able to replicate Jack London’s writing onstage, and the world he creates.”  

About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014.You’ll find his liner notes in more than 100 CDs by a wide range of artists including...
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