The Misuses of Enchantment
Fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim tells us, provide an irresistible horror for kids. By overcoming abandonment, starvation, and stew-pot cannibalism, young characters like Hansel and Gretel offer a child not only a roller coaster of fear, but also the hope that existential panic can one day be mastered. Erik Ehn’s Swedish Tales of Woe (Ohio Theater), a two-play cycle based on Scandinavian folk tales, is utterly lacking in this kind of psychological uplift. Instead of alleviating internal conflicts, this starkly Nordic double bill seems determined to cause them.
The first installment features a boy who turns into a girl while pining away for a bereaved giant—and as a consequence has his female heart eaten out by a blind, rabid fox. The second involves a Gypsy prince who, in a Faustian pact with the cosmos, wins his lover’s hand in marriage, but only after he’s transformed into an amorous cadaver. While these baleful fables are clearly unsuitable for high-strung toddlers, Ehn’s overly stylized treatment (think Mac Wellman in a self-consciously Symbolist mood) is more puzzling than scary. Presented in a succession of quickly dissolving scenes, the text tries so hard to be hallucinatory that it accidentally puts itself into a trance.
This isn’t to fault the arts-and-crafts ingenuity of Undermain Theatre’s production. Giants appear as shadows on a screen, a diaphanous sheet billows as an uncrossable stream, the sun and moon play gin rummy in wizard gowns before wrestling each other at dusk. Though the incidental use of film qualifies this as a multimedia event, the prevailing spirit is oaktag and felt markers. The beauty of director Bruce DuBose’s original guitar-and-percussion compositions makes one almost wish that Ehn had spun these grimmer-than-Grimm narratives into a dance collage, where their secret meanings could ambush us in landscapes of wordless fright. —Charles McNulty
The Winter of My German Auteur
Mounting a production of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant so close to Broadway smacks of a bizarre vanity project. It’s hard to think of a reason for this obscure tale of a self-absorbed designing woman to suddenly appear on a large scale, unless it’s meant to coincide with the release of the new Madonna record. Perhaps the Henry Miller’s Theater, once home to Xenon and the Kit Kat Club, wants the play to exorcise the ghosts of shallow liaisons haunting its elegantly crumbling interior.
Fassbinder owes much to Brecht, but it makes sense he’s better known as a filmmaker than a playwright. Moving glacially, the 1972 film version of Petra exhibits high claustrophobia and exacting control. The movie is notable for its gorgeous tableaux, the Stepford-wife delivery of actresses in eye-popping costumes, and an Oktoberfest’s worth of distancing devices. That the women are bisexual adds a layer of interest, but even that proves incidental.
Director Ian Belton falls into the trap of preserving the film’s dazed quality and some of its stylized movement, but with the exception of Anita Durst as Petra’s silent maid, the movement seems imitative and confused rather than witty—until Petra’s ill-chosen girlfriend deserts her. The arrival of melodrama is a relief, zapping the production in the butt like a stun gun. As Petra, the spider-limbed, wide-eyed Rebecca Wisocky nobly fills Fassbinder’s dramatic vacuum. With a presence like Katharine Hepburn in a funhouse mirror, she can display conflicting emotions on each side of her face. But you’d rather see her in a play with a detailed emotional foundation. On the visual side, Greco’s wild costumes match the film’s for inspiration, and Most Improved goes to set designer Jeff Cowie, once to blame for Defying Gravity, whose mirrored panels and fur-lined walls are the most sympathetic characters onstage. —James Hannaham
Holiday Not in Cambodia
The Bread and Puppet Theater travel from their communal farm in Vermont and touch down here in a time bubble. The company seem impervious to the decades since they were the political-theater vanguard of the ’60s, staging grand, anti-establishment puppet extravaganzas in parks and streets.
For The Heathen Nativity, their Christmas pageant at Theater for the New City, Bread and Puppet retain their trademark homespun performance style. The piece follows the structure of a Mass as celebrated by the Green Men. These Celtic forest folk tell the nativity story with a number of rustic and lefty agitprop flourishes. The dozen white-garbed performers warble pagan hymns and early-American four-part harmonies, combining them with clapping games and schoolroom instruments. They portray the world by donning white masks marked “system”—then firing squads mow them down with an extended finger and a “bang.” To enact the purer realm of the Green Men, the company apply evergreen wreaths to their heads and wear green placards adorned with smiling papier-mâché faces.
The puppets are mostly unimposing, but an expressive Virgin Mary, composed of large cardboard face and hands and a long, horizontal robe, stretches lugubriously across the stage; the Annunciation dove, a kind of Big Bird with a stovepipe neck, struts comically. The puppeteers also bear aloft amusingly painted cardboard devils, angels, cows, and clouds, as well as a sad paper donkey that looks like the work of very young hands. The show extends some gentle wit and lots of goodwill, and at the end the troupe slice up their famous sourdough rye for the crowd. The bread, at least, is fresh. —Francine Russo