Sunday, March 13, 2005

Play: Death and Princesses

The Secret in the Wings, created and Directed by Mary Zimmerman, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Through March

Mary Zimmerman created two of my favorite plays - Metamorphoses, which took on the stories of Ovid and the ancient Greeks, and Odyssey, which brilliantly retold the saga of Ulysses. Both made ample use of a talented cast and the interweaving of individual stories, with an admixture of modern sensibilities and a wry sense of humor. The Secret in the Wings, which applies the same process to the Grimm fairy tales, is an earlier work, and if a little murkier than the later two, is still brilliant and thoughtful at the same time.

Its no surprise that the original pre-Disney fairy stories were much darker than their santitized, modern descendents (a fact impressed on me by an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show but it is a fact which is re-"discovered" every few years). And the Grimm tales that this production is built upon are grim indeed - infanticide, incest, self-mutation, being buried alive, murder, cannibalism, a veritable laundry list of the dark times these tales came out of. And the production neither pulls punches nor titilates, but rather barrels through, taking the dreamworld of faerie at face value and underscoring the tales told.

The organization of the play is like a set of Russian dolls, or the involuted tales from the Arabian Nights. Each story pauses at a climactic moment to allow another tale to begin, which spawns a third tale, and so on, and finally, closes every parenthesis in working its way back up to the original story like a diver rising from the murky depths. The outer framework is Beauty and the Beast, recast into a darkened midwestern cellar where young girl has to deal with a ogre babysitter who both has a tail and a tale. Each story fractures within the story before, until reaching the story of the Seven Swan Brothers, which completes in full, and then in turn answers each tale before (the Princess who never laughed, the two snakes of healing, the Princess who fled rather than marry her father), until returning again to the Beast, who is not a beast after all.

The tales, like the text, is ripe with uncomfortable sexuality on multiple fronts, yet handled with a deft touch, pulling from the rhythm of the told tales. The Princesses of the tales run the gammut but come out poorly (drowned, blinded, horribly lost). And the tales, like the original text, are oddly truncated, as loose ends abound and logical holes appear. Indeed, one sequence within the play shows the onging battle between reason and dream, between maturity and childhood, between reality and dream.

The company (most of whom have been on previous Zimmerman productions) is brilliant, comfortable, and solid. The stage dressing gave me problems, in that while it captured the spooky basement of a midwestern home (1001 Wisconsonian Nights, perhaps?) some of the set blocked the actors. So too, the use of a greek-style chorus on the speakers captured the moody, dreamy nature of the tales, but were distorted to the point of being incomprehensible in places. The intent seems to be to capture the half-heard, muddled feeling of fantasy, but it leaves the viewer wondering if he had missed something.

And yes, a working knowledge of the stories does help. I knew most of the Ovid and Homer from previous productions, but my own childhood lacked the scary horror stories of traditional fairy tales (I seem to remember coming across them in various tomes in the library with color-co-ordinated names). And while Zimmerman's later works seems sharper, The Secret in the Wings left me with thinking of dreams and childhood and old stories, grimm and otherwise.

More later,