Who would have thought that so much ugliness could be delivered so beautifully?
With The Wild Bride, Kneehigh Theatre returns to the United States to serve up a feast for the senses in the form of a dark feminist fairytale, now at St. Ann's Warehouse. You're not likely to witness an onstage amputation this visually arresting, nor an attempted deflowering quite so toe-tapping, anywhere else this season.
Based on the Grimm fairytale "The Handless Maiden," The Wild Bride is the story of a poor man (Stuart Goodwin) who unwittingly sells his only daughter (Audrey Brisson at first, though all three of the cast's female members take a turn at the title role) to the devil (Andrew Durand) in return for endless riches. The girl is so pure, however, that the devil cannot touch her, so he orders the father to chop off his daughter's hands in an effort to sully her. The daughter (at this point played by Patrycia Kujawska) wanders the wilderness, handless and alone, until she meets a kilted prince (also Goodwin), who decides to marry her and forge her new hands made of farming equipment. When her prince goes off to war, however, it's not all happily ever after as our heroine (played in the final third by Etta Murfitt), must once again take refuge in the dark forest after a series of devilish miscommunications.
The stage is dominated by a massive, twisted apple tree, the site of biblical temptation, in which the devil sits enthroned for much of the show. Musicians, attired like subjects in a Dorothea Lange photo from the dustbowl, join him onstage, seamlessly transitioning from American blues to Balkan melodies. Then, without warning, the music goes electronic. The effect is a world tour of musical genres, masterfully synthesized by composer Stu Barker into an entertaining and memorable score.
Adapter and director Emma Rice, who successfully helmed 2010's St. Ann's to Broadway transfer Brief Encounter, has crafted thematic clarity out of extremely dark and convoluted source material. The original Grimm tale is taken from the oral tradition, with thousands of competing accounts chronicling angels, devils, incest, and violence. Rice has distilled the best of this mythology into a strong narrative which guides this sharp tale of female empowerment in the face of insurmountable circumstances.
Kneehigh's seven-person ensemble is brimming with talent—they sing, act, and play multiple instruments while tumbling across the stage. Rice's muscular theatricality is as much indebted to interpretive dance as it is slight-of-hand magic shows, and she pairs moments of high opera with contrasting English pantomime. These are highly stylized and extremely varied choices that the cast executes effortlessly.
As the Prince of Darkness, Andrew Durand endows Satan with a high-flying falsetto and distinctly unnerving perma-smile, the latter befitting his southern traveling salesman persona. Goodwin offers consistent comic relief as the clownish mortal men of the play.
It is noteworthy that all of the male characters in this feminist yarn are either ridiculous or completely evil.
Women, by comparison, are chattel. Our heroine has neither a speaking voice nor hands, and listens silently as the men on stage endlessly bloviate in rhyming couplets. Only occasionally does she let out her anguish, in the form of a mournful wail (Brisson, who proves that even little people can have mighty voices), or express herself through acrobatic dance (the endlessly energetic Kujawska). Yet somehow our heroine "finds light in the darkness," as embodied in Murfitt's elegantly understated performance as the older, wiser bride.
A night with The Wild Bride is a night in a world populated by poor Irishmen, royal Scotsmen, Balkan gypsies, migrant farmers, and Brooklyn hipster musicians who masquerade as the former. This is theater for the era of globalization, where anyone can meet at a crossroads and all are subject to the devil's machinations. Which is to say, really, that complaints of stylistic inconsistency have no place in the discussion. Kneehigh has no agenda beyond telling a good story, and they do so again with their colorful, worldly Bride.