In their original forms, of course, fairy tales contain all manner of violence, rudeness, and sexual suggestion—but even in the grimmest of the Brothers Grimm, we don’t recall magical fecal matter, removing of eyeballs, or intimations of mother-daughter incest. These outré objects and events all occur in Rapunzel, Kneehigh Theatre’s adaptation of the folk tale, intended for theatergoers ages seven and older.
The 28-year-old Cornwall company, very much acclaimed in England, makes its stateside debut with this tonally bizarre story-theater piece. (Kneehigh is also currently playing the West End with a more grown-up play, an adaptation of David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter.) Rapunzel‘s staging, courtesy of director Emma Rice, is lively and inventive, as is the mandolin-based incidental music performed by the cast. The young children in the audience seemed largely unperturbed by the play’s mélange of the sentimental and the icky—they screamed during the love scenes and happily cheered the murderous ones.
Rapunzel features a spunky heroine (Edith Tankus) with a head full of dreadlocks and a willingness to handle a boar turd. The sprightly Pieter Lawman plays her crooning paramour, and Mike Shepherd her creepy adopted mother. This brief encounter with Kneehigh doesn’t really explain their popularity or their critical plaudits, but it did delight the attendant tots, even if one did complain on exiting: “All that kissing was gross.”