Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Wild Bride: Kneehigh's Dark Fairy Tale

The Wild Bride is a moody, atmospheric bent fairy tale with a bluegrass tinge that at 70 minutes might have been the right balance of style and archetypal story, but unfortunately at two hours the work runs out of steam and so did I.

England's Kneehigh theater company brings this story of a woman's strength in the face of constant adversity to St. Ann's Warehouse this season.  We first meet a young girl (Audrey Brisson) whose drunken father (Stuart Goodwin) does a deal with the Devil for a life of riches in exchange for what is in his backyard.  Not realizing the Devil (Andrew Durand) has his eye on his daughter and not his crops, the farmer agrees and the child is the victim of this plot.  Finding her pure touch makes it impossible for him to take her, the Devil demands the father cut her hands off.  After her father acquiesces, the Girl becomes the Wild (Patrycja Kujawska) and opts for a life in the wilderness rather than stay with her father who has betrayed her.  She encounters a Prince (naturally) who despite her grubby exterior and handless situation falls for her immediately.  They live a charmed life until the Devil again intercedes.  The Wild Bride is now a Woman (Etta Murfitt) and she gives birth to the Prince's child.  The Devil causes mayhem for the Woman and her newborn and she is again cast out, now with her child, and must survive again.  But this time the Devil wants to punish her for good. 

Emma Rice has staged the adaptation of  the Grimm's fairy tale The Handless Maiden at the Robert Johnson Crossroads.  I was not expecting the Cornwall based theater company to use jug band music and Southern American accents (well the Devil is American...but the Dad is Irish, the Prince is Scottish).   Despite soulful singing and an inventive visual approach, I found the tale for me seemed to drag.   The dynamic dance, the somber forest setting, and mournful tunes got lost in the meandering pace of the story and show.  By the third character change I was a little tired of the Devil plots against the Woman.  And I had lost interest in her and her problems.

Whether daughter, wife or mother, the Wild Bride is at the mercy of the men in her life, whether welcome partners or interfering Devils.  It is meant to be a feminist retelling of survival, power, and strength.  But something about that nagged at me. She speaks so little.  Much of her story is expressed in dance and then she also expresses herself in song (though sometimes fractured as one performer sings while another dances/acts the role).  Having three different women perform her arguably sets her up as an "every woman," or it emphasizes the three different roles she has in life-- daughter, wife, and mother--and the different ages being represented.  But for me, her voice was not so much multiplied as divided by this choice.   Of course it's a fairy tale and the characters are archetypes but she felt just as unknown at the beginning as she did at the end.  And if we are bending fairy tales for today's audiences maybe give the over-victimized woman a voice.  I never quite felt the hope Rice suggests is there in the work.  But I'm also at a place in my life where "survival" is not enough for me.  I want more.

I enjoyed Patrycja Kujawska's performance the most.  She gets to let loose as the Wild and her physical exploration of life in the wild without hands is the most exuberant part of the show.  Audrey Brisson has a gorgeous voice and the dark tones of her torch-y songs were fantastic.

Just after it was all said and done I felt like the promise and goodwill the work built up with me in the beginning had wasted away by the end.

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