Bad Blood

On the Kentucky side of the Tug River Valley separating the state from West Virginia, towering Appalachian Mountains serenely overlook acres of land that were once drenched in blood. Tourists flock to this century-old location, not for the picturesque view it offers of the beautiful Appalachians but for the folklore surrounding the area's former inhabitants, the Hatfields and McCoys. Feud: Fire on the Mountain, currently playing at the Village Theatre as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, chillingly recreates the lives of these two famously feuding families without sparing the tense audience any of the gory details. Writer and director Creighton James asks the audience to "jump into the world we have created for you" and "open your senses to the sights and sounds of the period." With the atmosphere he has created, this is easily done.

The men walk about in stained, untucked shirts, hopelessly wrinkled pants, and ratty shoes covered in dry mud. They rub their dirt-smudged faces with dirt-smudged hands while running handkerchiefs across their greasy, sweat-soaked hair. The McCoy and Hatfield kitchens both contain wooden tables held up on tree stumps, and their surfaces are covered with roasted chickens, jugs of water, and iron pots. Tiny saplings covered in red bandanas surround the McCoy home, while autumn leaves adorn the floor. In the background a live band, consisting of a banjo, fiddler, and guitar player, strums country and bluegrass music reminiscent of what mountain families might have played over a century ago.

The Hatfields and McCoys have interesting and intricate dynamics that define their respective families. On the surface they appear very different, but when threatened they react the same. Both clans are fighters, ready to stand up for their siblings; stare down their neighbors; and lynch, stab, whip, maim, or shoot dead anyone who threatens their kin. (Those sitting in the first few rows should be warned that a loud, smoky shootout will be taking place above their heads, and they might want to sit a little farther back.)

But those who can stomach the tension and bear the noise should sit as close to the stage as possible. The climax is a visual extravaganza of sound, light, and special effects coming together to turn the theater into a bloody battlefield between two families beside themselves with homicidal rage. Red light bathes the room, smoke pours eerily from the stage, and gun-wielding Hatfields and McCoys fire at one another from all corners of the theater.

The performers are excellent at both maintaining and escalating the suspense. Valentine McCoy (Keith Conway) is a terrifyingly loose cannon, while his brothers Paris (Gary Patent) and Sam (Scott Price) are so nervous with a weapon that you are never sure what they will do. The McCoy patriarch, Ranel McCoy (Will Brunson), is frustratingly passive in the face of his family's violent showdown, in sharp contrast to the Hatfield patriarch, Anse (Arthur Lazalde), who is unnerving in the cold and collected way he points a gun. However, it is little 7-year-old Alifair McCoy (Jaclyn Tommer) who can send the calmest heart aflutter when she innocently shuffles across the stage to examine a trigger-happy Hatfield boy with childlike amusement.

The Hatfield and McCoy feud is so wrapped up in myth that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what started a neighborly quarrel that spanned years and left approximately 13 people dead. Over the years the story has been told so many times that fact has blended with fiction, stripping the tale of all but one undisputable truth: violence breeds violence.

After experiencing the hatred and carnage in Feud: Fire on the Mountain, audiences might be moved to peacefully resolve their own conflicts before they escalate. This historic and true story is an alarming realization of what can happen when loving thy neighbor fails on a spectacular scale.

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