A fantastical, visually inventive coming of age story, Zoey and the Wind-Up Boy is a 27-minute film that unfolds deep in the imagination of an isolated young woman. Directed and written by Marica Petrey, who also stars as the titular Zoey, the steampunk fairytale is part of an evolving creative realm that manifests on stage, screen and bandstand at San Francisco’s PianoFightFeb. 3-4.
A restaurant and performance space that specializes in introducing new works, PianoFight has two black box theaters and a restaurant/bar with cabaret stage, “so you come into the main stage theater for the first show, the 20-minute one-act play where you kind of see what Zoey’s actual reality might be like with her parents,” says Petrey, 27, from her home in Oakland. .
“From there you go into Zoey’s head in the film, which was inspired by the play, and after the film we lead the audience out to restaurant where my new band Girl Swallows Nightingale plays my whole song cycle, sort of Zoey as a teenager with her own band.”
For a gal with no friends aside from a rat and an intimidating gas-masked figure known as Mr. Strange, Zoey makes good company in the film. As played by Petrey, she’s not so much forlorn as spunky and adrift in a strikingly detailed landscape. The film’s art direction is often inspired, making copious use of fabric, found objects, and pink yarn (clearly pussy hats weren’t the only thing responsible for the pink yarn crisis of 2017).
The spare dialogue doesn’t provide much backstory, but Zoey seems to be in search of a soulmate, and is so desperate to connect with someone that she conjures the Wind-Up Boy, a toy-like figure with a bellows attached to his back and a trumpet in his hands. Love interest or lost sibling, he provides some company in a land full of threats natural and supernatural.
“She creates this whole world about the Wind-Up Boy,” Petrey says. “In the film she finally connects with someone, and when he goes totally blank she’s still trying to connect. It’s about those moments when you do find someone you can relate to and how special it is.”
Raised in a highly musical family in Wyoming and the high desert town of Palmdale in Los Angeles County, Petrey has studied Arabic on the West Bank and acting at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts in Saint Petersburg. She first encountered Zoey as an undergrad at Cal, where she graduated in 2012 with a degree in comparative literature (focusing on Russian and Arabic literature) and performing arts.
As part of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies’ Lab Run program she was cast by TDPS grad student Joshua Williams in his play Zoey in the Snowand the role “totally clicked,” she says. “I just fell in love with this character. He’s one of those writers who really works with the actors, and he wrote these very beautiful monologues for her, with so many images. She goes into her head about Mr. Strange and all these other worlds. A few years later, for fun, I started turning some monologues into songs. And then I felt that I have to see it, and Zoey started turning into a film.”
The polymorphously creative Petrey has spent several years pursuing a variety of endeavors. She’s the cellist and vocalist in the chamber pop band Mad Noise, and makes videos focusing on artists for California Magazine’s website (where she started as an intern). She launched Radix Troupe last year to bring all of her pursuits together, and the premiere at PianoFight is “our first two full-length productions mixing film theater and music,” she says. “This is definitely the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done, bringing all interconnected parts created over a long period of time together. In the past, it was here’s one piece, and here’s another. They weren’t all in the same world.”
Part of what makes Zoey and the Wind-Up Boy such a vivid and transporting experience is Petrey’s use of California landscapes. Her resourceful location scout Jon Cho-Polizzi found one cinematic setting after another, from the rugged Mendocino coast to the wondrously weird moonscape of Mono Lake, where the film concludes.
“That was the the [ most fun] part, getting the whole crew together to scout these locations that Jon found,” Petrey says. “We have to get all these shots on with only two camera batteries, and when it’s freezing batteries die a lot faster. I was freezing a lot of the time. It was so cold. I would have preferred not to play the main character, but then I would have had to get actor’s insurance.”
Just as Zoey’s imagination gives birth to the Wind-Up Boy, Petrey’s teeming creative life continues to spin off new projects. She continues to work on journalistic projects for California, including an upcoming piece on the Standing Rock pipeline protests, while writing new music with Joshua Williams for Girl Swallows Nightingale, which features Andrea Wong on keyboard and vocals, drummer Mogli Maureal, electric bassist Travis Kindred, and violinist Eli Wirtschafter (who also plays Mr. Strange).
“For me, this was my film school,” Petrey says. “It’s taken me almost two years, from writing the script to showing it. It’s been a huge payoff. I’ve gone through the process, this huge learning curve. Now I’d love to make a feature-length film where I take everything I’ve learned and be more efficient, bigger and better.”