A Fatal Step
Maybe the archetype goes all the way back to Eve and the apple. Ancient models can be traced to Jezebel, Delilah, and Salome in the biblical era or Aphrodite, Helen of Troy, or Medea from the Greek and Roman myths. Jumping millennia ahead into the 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood, the great femme fatales – “fatal women,” sometimes referred to as “maneaters,” vamps, or even witches – include Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Brigid (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon. And who can forget the most notorious of curvy, sexy seductresses, Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Bullwinkle?
Joining this long line of mysterious, seductive women who use their perfume-laced charms to ensnare supposedly poor, innocent (and usually hunky) lovers is now Jill Vice, author and performer of the satirical thriller, A Fatal Step, soon to complete its extended run at The Marsh in San Francisco. What makes A Fatal Step particularly enlightening as well as hilariously entertaining is that Ms. Vice (and that is in fact her real name) tells this tale from the viewpoint of the enchantress herself, allowing her character to lure in the audience with her hypnotic powers. We willingly are on her side in the conflicts, crises, and crimes to ensue – those largely of her own making of course.
Prone to stand with her hip shifted to the side with one hand resting ever so lighting on it, Sarah is naturally in a dress tight and red, with dipping neck line and a slit up the back hem that parts nicely to show her stocking legs whenever she turns her back to us. Yes, she is determined to seduce us just as she has her live-in lover, Frank. Sarah has that required Southern accent that has some aristocracy hints in it; and she has red, red lips that smack, purse, and open wide is innocent amazement on cue. She is totally delicious in a very dangerous way.
As this former nursery worker who has a thumb green for growing creeping plants and vines spills her tale of woe, she introduces us to a host of characters to populate in delightful ways the story. First and foremost, there is her boyfriend, Frank, a podiatrist (just imagine the foot jokes that find their way into the telling) who calls her “Shh-arahhh” in his back-of-the-throat voice like Sam in Casablanca. Jill tells us that Frank is “just tall enough he could reach my hat shelf but not so tall I had to strain to kiss him.” From her pantomimed gestures, we can imagine Frank having broad shoulders and large hands that know how to stroke her curves and curls.
We also meet Alice, Jill’s best friend with a high, pebbly voice that sounds straight from a Saturday morning cartoon. Into her and Frank’s life comes Alice’s friend, Hope, “too tall for proper pumps ... with mousy brown hair” who is “painfully optimistic.” Hope sits with her toes tucked inward and has a little-girl voice to match her mousy hair. The too-too nice Hope becomes soon the rival that every femme fatale must have in order to do her harm. In this case, Hope convinces Frank to quit his practice and to open a free foot clinic in the Tenderloin for the homeless where Hope herself will use her angelic tears and her long hair to welcome folks off the street, cleaning their tootsies as they enter the clinic.
What becomes more and more stunning about Jill Vice’s performance is how seamlessly she switches from one character to the next in voice, accents, countenance, posture, idiosyncratic twitches, and foot placement – often having two to three of them in rapid conversation or tense, desperate arguments with each other. We also get to meet Frank’s bed-ridden mother, Mona, whose deep, gravelly voice calls out from her severely down-turned mouth. There is also the squatty, froggy-voiced reporter with bowed legs from “Foot Medicine Magazine” and the stoned Lyft driver who is quick to give his advice and counsel for Sarah’s sky-rocketing concerns that she is losing her man to that do-gooder, not-at-all-pretty Hope.
David Ford, who aided in the piece’s development, has created a lighting design that has Hitchcock-familiar shadows and projections that smack loudly of film noir. A window’s Venetian blinds fall cock-eyed against the back wall while later a rotating spiral provides great parody of scenes from Vertigo. Mark Kenward’s direction is a great partner to Ms. Vice’s innate abilities to weave a tale of stock characters that have their feet planted both in the 1940s and in current San Francisco, where a raised eyebrow, a upturned lip, or a flick of a finger speak volumes in ensuring the mimicry of film noir occurs in subtle but distinct flair.
The sixty minutes of A Fatal Step are so packed with characters, twists and turns as well as screen-worthy moments of drama that in the end, it is difficult to believe that all that could be done in just one hour. The length is perfect as is Jill Vice’s satirical, but loving homage to the femme fatale.
Rating: 5 E
A Fatal Step continues through in an extended run through April 28, Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., at The Marsh, San Francisco, main stage, 1062 Valencia Street. Tickets are available at http://themarsh.org or by calling 415-282-3055 Monday – Friday, 1 – 4 p.m.
Photo Credit: Jill Vice