10 January 2012

wild at heart

Last Sunday night I went to Berkeley Rep to see the Kneehigh Theater’s production of The Wild Bride, which is an adaptation of The Maiden Without Hands, one of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. A couple of years ago I missed Kneehigh’s production of Brief Encounter at ACT; I really love that movie so I was wary of any adaptations and by the time I heard enough praise to make me think I should go it was too late in the run for me to make the schedules work. I thought I was going to miss The Wild Bride as well, which made me kind of sad since it sounded like something I’d really like: a folk tale staged with lots of music and theatrical savvy and the suggestive and creative use of props (similar in style to some of the Mary Zimmerman plays I’ve seen and enjoyed). Then Berkeley Rep extended the run to 22 January, so The Wild Bride became my first performance of 2012, and my first big disappointment.

The short version is that the staging is often clever and inventive, but the script just isn’t there. Here’s the long version:

To start with, everything – dialogue as well as music – is miked, so all the sound has that slightly off-center, flattened quality. All the actors had ugly little body mikes taped to their heads, and at least one had a long wire snaking down her back, which was distracting when she danced. The sound itself wasn’t all that bad – I’ve experienced much, much worse on Broadway – but I’m wondering why the miking was done at all. The Roda Theater is fairly small, and if your voice can’t fill it, you probably shouldn’t be on stage. But this seems to be standard procedure at Berkeley Rep these days; in fact the playbill had an interview with Elliott Ares, holder of the first Harry Weininger Sound Fellowship, who spoke casually about body mikes as if there was no question they were standard issue. Why should I go to live theater if I’m not getting live sound?

Speaking of the playbill, it contained an extremely odd “Prologue” from managing director Susan Medak, gushing on and on about the late Steve Jobs with his “rich capacity to dream” and “unfettered imagination” and what a “wildly creative visionary” he was etc etc and oh yeah here’s a little afterthought we’re presenting this theater group called Kneehigh – can boilerplate gush? Because we all saw reams of this standard-issue ass-kissing right after Jobs died, and with all due respect to him and his influence, I don’t really get it, but then I’m not a tech groupie-cultist or a CEO groupie-cultist, and I think most of his products actually help further marginalize live performance, and so much for theater that is “trying to change the world, one play at a time,” to quote another part of the playbill.

Speaking of changing the world, I hope all those little Chinese child laborers assembling Apple products are appropriately grateful that their nimble and pennies-per-hour fingers are helping to implement the creative vision of the Great and Beloved Leader! (Talk about accidentally selling your children to the devil! which, by the way, is the starting point of The Wild Bride.) Can we acknowledge that "creative visioning" is just more readily available to those who can afford Berkeley Rep's ticket prices in this economy? (In fairness to Ms Medak, I will assume that in a later “Prologue” she will say something about the late Vaclav Havel, a genuinely great man who actually had something to do with theater.)

Here’s another random complaint, before I get to the problems with the play itself: the evening would have been much better without the intermission, which doesn’t do much besides stall whatever momentum has been developed (there were no set changes or other technical reasons that I could see for needing a pause) . Played without an intermission, the performance would be about an hour and forty-five minutes, which is not unreasonable, and it would have been easy enough to pare back some of the more repetitious dancing and singing to bring it in at 90 minutes – I really enjoyed the bluesy music, but how many times do you need to hear about Ezekiel and the dry bones now hear the word of the Lord? As it was, the performance lasted just long enough to make me miss my train by one minute, so that I had to sit in the station for almost twenty minutes, stewing in my disappointed juices.

I’m going to give a bit of a plot summary now, so consider yourself spoiler-alerted. Playwright and director Emma Rice, who is also the co-Artistic Director of Kneehigh, changed the story in some interesting and significant ways from the original, which I read after seeing the play, though unfortunately she didn't always substitute anything but theatrical flash:

There is a loving but perpetually drunken woodsman who meets a stranger, who offers him great wealth in return for whatever is in his backyard. The woodsman thinks it’s just his old apple tree, not realizing his beloved daughter is climbing the tree. (The girl is portrayed by three different women at three different stages of her life, and they don’t particularly look, act, or sound alike, which I liked because it gives a nice sense of the different possibilities in the one character.) The stranger turns out to be the Devil, who comes to collect his payment, only he can’t because the girl is too clean, and the Devil hates anything clean (though he does manage to pick her up and mime raping her before he realizes he has that little problem).

So the Woodsman is ordered to dirty her, which he does with a bucket of slick beige mud. But she weeps so much her hands become clean, and the Devil still can’t carry her off, so he insists the Woodsman chop off her hands. He does so, in a scene that is both highly stylized and completely terrifying (the woman next to me covered her eyes): she extends her hands one at a time, sobbing; his axe comes down on the tree-stump in front of her (which is of course a safe distance ahead of the actress's arms), and one of the other two women takes that hand and dips it into a bucket of shiny dripping red paint. It's simple but striking and effective and the kind of effect that can only work in the theater. The mutilated girl is still too good for the Devil, so he declares he will let the world dirty her, and when it does, he will be back for her. Pause for unnecessary intermission.

The armless girl leaves her father. She discovers an orchard with numbered pears (cleverly presented by lightbulbs with large numbers hanging from them). She is hungry but cannot reach the pears without hands. The trees benevolently bend down so she can eat a pear. She is discovered by the orchard owner, who is the King. He is inexplicably Scottish, complete with kilt, though he becomes less Scottish as the evening progresses, and his mother doesn’t sound Scottish at all. The Scottish king is played by the same actor who played her father (which is kind of creepy), only then he had an Irish accent, which also seemed to be the only such accent in the vicinity. Kneehigh is a British troupe and presumably all this tomfoolery with accents makes some sense to them. Since I am part Irish I feel I should at least note the possibility of offense, if not from giving the only drunkard the only Irish accent, then from the moldiness of the stereotype.

The king falls instantly in love with the strange silent handless girl, because that is the role of men in these stories: if you’re not of high (in fact, the highest!) social status and willing to fall instantly in love, you might as well be a dwarf or a weakling father, abandoned after a paragraph or two. In the original story the King has a pair of silver hands made for the girl, but here they are big ungainly instruments of steel or iron; one ends with strange straggling twig-like fingers and the other with a scimitar. No use is made of these extensions and it’s unclear why he gives her such ungainly implements, especially since he makes jokes about how dangerous they are during their cheerfully, relentlessly vulgar and overextended sex scene, during which they enthusiastically act out a variety of positions.

The King goes off to fight a war, battling amid much dry ice and many strobe lights. The Wild Bride gives birth. His mother sends him the news. (The mother is portrayed, in another clever bit of staging, by a large portrait of an elegant woman in the eighteenth-century style with large holes where her hands would be, so that one of the actresses not playing the Bride can insert her hands through the holes and gesture appropriately; there are golden pears on the frame and a white wire chandelier hanging nearby that is also shaped like a pear, so there’s definitely a pear thing going on.)

The Devil intercepts the letter and substitutes one saying the child is half-dog. The King says to love it anyway. The Devil intercepts that letter too and substitutes one saying to kill the Wild Bride and the child and to save her eyeballs and tongue as proof that his order was carried out. His mother can’t bring herself to do this, so she warns the Bride to flee with the child. The mother then, with her bare royal hands, rips out the eyeballs and tongue of a delightful large puppet doe. Red streamers shoot out from her violated orifices, and the gentle creature dies, deserving better.

I might be making this sound a little more entertaining than it was. The bluesy music was certainly enjoyable. I kept wishing that the jogtrot rhymes weren’t so often clumsy and obvious, and padded out, and that some of the singing and dancing had been tightened up a bit.

The Bride heeds the warning and wanders in the frozen forest for years. We are told she and her child are in imminent danger of starvation, but she actually seems to be fine and does a little kick-boxy dance indicative of – ugh, let me hold my nose with one hand and extend the meaningless jargon term out to arm’s length with the other – “empowerment.” It seems to me she’d be better off figuring out how to fish or hunting for berries or something actually helpful and specific rather than indulging in some generic emotional mood that would in reality crumple in no time against the hardness of the world, but I am impressed at how clearly her stance and fist-pumping and striding indicate “empowerment” without also looking completely hacky and ridiculous, so good on ya, choreographer! The meaning was clear enough to the well-dressed, middle-aged frosted blonde in the middle of the front row (I was at the end of the row) who raised her glass and went, “Yeah!” Earlier in the second act the same woman had started talking a bit too loudly. Berkeley Rep might want to rethink its policy of allowing beverages in the auditorium, at least when it comes to wine.

The Wild Bride’s hands have now grown back – for no particular reason, they just regenerate, apparently as a result of her feeling “empowered,” because that is how cells behave. The regeneration makes sense in the original story, which is filled with benevolent Heaven-aided miracles, but less so here. Compassion for suffering creatures is a spiritually and socially valuable feeling, but the Wild Bride is going instead for improbable wish fulfillment and generic uplift.

Another result of her "empowerment" is that she seems to gain her voice, though it’s a little unclear if she was born mute or if muteness just happened early on. In either case “gaining her voice” is such a hacky and obvious symbol that it moved me to eye-rolling rather than wonderment. Why not let her speak all along, like the girl in the original story? Rice has given her a voice, but not really anything to say. Rice sure likes to pile on the Bride’s suffering. And indeed it did seem to be one of those stories in which we are invited to luxuriate in the spectacle of a woman’s endless victimization, with a bit of bogus “empowerment” slapped on at the end to make the self-pitying wallow acceptable – the spoonful of medicine that helps the sugar go down.

The King returns, finds out what has happened, and goes searching for his wife and child in the forest, where grief and solitude drive him mad. He is cured when they are reunited. So the Devil comes back to collect his beloved Bride, and – she punches him a couple of times and he falls down in defeat and then runs off.

And that's all. That's it.

Let me step back for a minute here to the original story, which turns out to be a story of suffering redeemed by piety and goodness – the tale of a dutiful daughter. Her father is not a vaguely comic drunkard, but a poor, frightened man whom the Devil tricks and then terrifies into cutting off his daughter’s hands. He explains his dilemma to her and she, like Iphigenia stepping between her warring parents, freely offers herself as a sacrifice. She also has the dignity to then refuse the help of her now-wealthy father, and wanders off, where her goodness and piety gain her an angel helper, both in the pear orchard where she meets the King and in the forest with her child, where she is eventually reunited with her husband through the angel's help.

The problem is not that Rice has altered what is after all a fairly grotesque tale of a woman who is rewarded for her pious submission. It’s that she hasn’t put anything dramatically or psychologically convincing in its place. Sorry, the whole final scene fell as flat and as quickly as the Devil, and he took a dive like a regular patsy. I kept assuming this would be one of those stories where a clever, brave girl outwits the Devil. Nope. It just took a left hook. (It's like seeing The Merchant of Venice only when Portia stands up at the trial, she doesn't blather on about the quality of mercy or taking the flesh but not any blood, she just walks over to Shylock and slugs him, and then the case is dismissed.) For someone who fights dirty and has supernatural powers, the Devil sure gives up easily. So why didn’t she punch him earlier? If she now has super boxing powers thanks to her life experiences, then what has she learned and how has she changed and grown? We’re not told, except for that little “empowerment” dance, which was mildly entertaining but not really enough to defeat the Devil. If he couldn’t touch her earlier because she was too good for him, why doesn’t he have the same problem now, since she’s not only still good, she’s better? If her hands had to be chopped off because otherwise they were too clean for the Devil to endure, why isn’t he also put off by her regenerated hands?

The play is a mash-up of the plights of Griselda and Job (with a dash of Faust), with the Devil taking the place of Griselda’s paranoid husband. The Devil describes the story early in Act 2 as "a feminist fairy tale," with (I'm quoting from memory, so this isn't exact) a bit of everything: humor, thrills, excitement (end attempted quotation, and I kind of resented being told this, as if I were at a restaurant and the chef came out halfway through the meal and told me that I was certainly enjoying my dinner, and it had everything I like – thanks, but I can taste for myself). But – even granted that “feminism” is a capacious and slippery term – in what serious way is this feminist?

The Wild Bride remains a passive victim throughout, until that last scene, which I found unconvincing and arbitrary in the play’s own terms, a slapped-on and modish "happy ending." The Bride doesn’t do anything: she doesn’t use her wit or cunning, she isn't particularly brave or bold. She isn't actively good, and doesn’t even get to be pious and pray for help, since this is a world which contains devils (though their power seems to vary considerably, depending on dramatic convenience) but no angels. If she’s learned anything, we don’t know what it is. Look, this isn’t Chekhov – it would have fit in perfectly with the tone of the piece to have the Bride impart some rhyming wisdom to us, some cheerful words about fighting back or not trusting the Devil or maybe even just laying off the moonshine, Dad.

There’s an interview with Rice in the playbill in which she announces “I’m not a huge lover of words. I do use words in my work, but I always think they’re the sprinkle on top.” Yeah, that would explain why the staging is so often striking and even poetic but the words are mundane and the action often doesn’t make sense outside of its immediate moment. The tone shifts wildly and unevenly; sometimes horrible things are treated terrifyingly and sometimes comically; sometimes the Devil is all-powerful and sometimes he’s laughable and weak. It all seems to depend on what’s dramatically convenient at the moment, and whether the performance needs to be goosed a bit with some vaudeville laughs or some thrills and chills, as opposed to what makes sense in the overall context of these characters and what happens to them.

I could have gotten past most of this, if Rice hadn’t let me down in the big scene. Where was the clever heroine I was expecting?

As the auditorium was filling up before the show, I noticed a woman with her little dark-haired son. I think he was the youngest person there. Seeing him made me think of going to the theater with my mother when I was a child. As I was leaving, I saw his eyes shining as his mother asked him if he wanted to go up and look at the stage. I hope they enjoyed the performance. Would I have, when I was his age? I no longer know.


sfmike said...

Ah, slagging on the CEO Cult of Personality Worship and the Cult of Female Victimization/Empowerment in one fell swoop. Well done, Patrick.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You're making me feel that the ticket was quite a bargain!