Edith Tankus and Mike Shepherd in Rapunzel
(© Sheila Burnett)
Edith Tankus and Mike Shepherd in Rapunzel
(© Sheila Burnett)
Not since Into the Woods has there been a theatrical fairy tale as dark and ingenious as the Kneehigh Theatre Company's delightfully adult production of Rapunzel, playing at The New Victory Theater. You will certainly recognize the familiar fairy tale in this telling, written by Annie Siddons and directed and adapted by Emma Rice, but you will get considerably more than the simple story you may remember from childhood -- including a five-minute digression in which a character stops the show to define inflation. Full of music, slapstick, inventive staging, and wonderfully broad and funny performances by the seven-member troupe, this is a show you could happily take in with or without your kids in tow.

Here, an abandoned baby, Rapunzel is saved by a female herbalist and raised with a love that is ultimately far too protective. In order to keep her daughter "safe," she is ensconced in the tower where, eventually, her hair becomes the rope ladder that allows the Duke's younger son to climb up to her and fall head over heels in love. As one might imagine, things don't go too smoothly for these lovers (played with comic brio by Edith Tankus and Pieter Lawman).

Rapunzel not only gets her hair cut off, she is banished from the tower and set adrift in the world to find her lover. Meanwhile, the vengeful herbalist has blinded the Duke's son, who wanders the world looking for Rapunzel. They spend the better part of the 90-minutes of this raucous and rowdy tale apart, each having their own hilarious adventures.

What distinguishes the comedy is the distinctly Marx Brothers-like approach to the material, in which the cast is constantly breaking the fourth wall. One character, in particular, sets the tone of the piece when he cheerfully announces that he is leaving the story, and happy to do so. He marches off the stage and down the center aisle, only to return again later, ruefully announcing his return. While a lot of the comedy is going to go over the head of your average eight year old, they will nevertheless know -- and enjoy the fact -- that their legs are being pulled.

The set and costume design by Michael Vale suit the story with amusement, while the lighting (by Alex Wardle) and sound (by Dominic Bilkey), contribute to the show's heightened sense of comic reality. Underneath all the tomfoolery, however, is the serious and deeply felt theme of the redemptive power of love. And that's a message to be appreciated at any age.