The Secret in the Wings
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Coeurage Theatre Company at the Historic Lankershim Arts Center
Through December 16
If your concept of a fairy tale is based on Disney’s saccharine stories in which the Little Mermaid easily finds love or Belle blissfully enjoys the company of the oddly photogenic beast, playwright Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeously rendered adaptation of a number of fantastic stories will frankly blow your mind. It will also remind you of the more disturbing roots of these stories, planted deep in the collective unconscious where dark creatures roam and human motivations are more jagged than the road through a moonlit forest. Zimmerman’s anthology, which receives a masterful staging in director Joseph V. Calarco’s handsome production, contains so many unsettling ideas and events, that it stays unnervingly in your memory long after you leave the theater.
The play opens as a married couple leave their young daughter (Audrey Flegel) with babysitter Leon (Leon Russom) for the evening as they head out to a party. The couple sees a genial, avuncular babysitter, but Audrey sees a hideous ogre with a spiny tail who has obvious plans to devour her. Almost immediately after the parents leave, the ogre asks Audrey to marry him. Each time she refuses, he opens the storybook he’s carrying with him to read her a different fairy tale, which is then acted out.
In the first story, three young brothers marry three lovely women, but fall under the curse of an evil witch. When war breaks out and the men leave to fight, she banishes the women and forces them to gouge out their eyeballs, which she eats. In another, a king declares that the man who can make his sallow-faced princess daughter smile can marry her — but if he can’t, the suitor’s head must be chopped off. In another, due to a curse, a king whose queen dies must marry the next most beautiful woman in the kingdom — so he casts a vile, incestuous eye on his own daughter. In my personal favorite, an angry dad curses his six sons and turns them into swans, forcing his daughter to take a vow of silence for seven years to restore them.
Many of the stories are based on the Brothers Grimm tales, which are adaptations of rural folklore. They are rich with horrifying twists, ghoulish developments, and acts of cruelty symptomatic of personality disorders, like sadism and deep rage. However, they also touch on the pedagogical aspects of fairy tales — the idea that stories are meant to teach you how to live. The heroines take their fates into their own hands to achieve their goals, and wickedness is ultimately punished, albeit with much baggage in the process.
Calarco stages the goings-on faithful to the harrowing mood of the material — but he also counterbalances the horror with ironic humor and downright sass. When the cruel princess (Katie Pelensky) hosts her “make me laugh” event, it’s staged as an open mic standup comedy showcase, with a dire hook at the end. But there are also moments of piercing beauty: when the sister (Margaret Katch) of the six swans manages to transform her brothers back into human beings, it’s a moment of breathtaking redemption.
The fairy tale ambiance is amplified by set designer JR Bruce’s dusty attic, and by Brandon Baruch’s eerie lighting design. Masks by Kumie Asai and Bob Beuth add a Venetian flair to some of the stories.
The ensemble work is masterful: The cast wrings pathos and humor from situations which, on the page, sometimes make no sense at all. Particular standouts include Pelensky, compelling as a toweringly cruel princess who won’t laugh; and theater veteran Russom as the tender-hearted ogre who may himself be under some kind of transformation. Randolph Thompson, as a husband willing to go to death and beyond for his faithless wife, is also marvelous, as is Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann as a creepy king who would wed his own daughter.
Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Thurs-Sat., 8 p.m.; through December 16. (323) 944-2165 or www.coeurage.org/sitw. Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with an intermission.