Patrycja Kujawska and Robert Luckay
in The Red Shoes
(© Pavel Antonov)
Patrycja Kujawska and Robert Luckay
in The Red Shoes
(© Pavel Antonov)
Before the start of director Emma Rice's darkly enthralling and decidedly adult-oriented adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Red Shoes, being presented by her Kneehigh Theatre Company at St. Ann's Warehouse, one encounters cast members in the theater lobby -- but they are far from the jolly souls audience members found in the same space prior to Rice's adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter last season (and which can now be found at Broadway's Studio 54).

No, these folks are barefooted, skinny, their eye sockets turned sinister by kohl, clad in underwear, and carrying brown valises. It's as if they're all haunted, forced to carry the truths by which we all live and from which we can't escape.

Once inside, one of them sits stage left and one sits stage right -- Stu Barker and Ian Ross with instruments around them -- while four others wash their feet and threaten to pour the water in their metal basins on audience members. They only stop when a pale-faced narrator in drag calling him/herself Lady Lydia (Giles King) enters, climbs onto Bill Mitchell's scaffolding-like set, and bolts into the now-familiar story, but one that Rice has molded to her purposes.

That's when the others unpack their valises, becoming the girl (Patrycja Kujawska, with hair cropped as short as her male colleagues), an old lady (Dave Mynne), a World War II soldier (Robert Luckay), a preacher (Mike Shepherd) and in time several other characters. Sometimes dancing in drill formation, the five unfold the tale of a poor girl who is taken in by a rich blind woman, becomes obsessed with a pair of red shoes, and insists on going to church in them when forbidden to do so.

As a result, she's eventually confronted by a chastising angel, dictating, "You must dance in those red shoes of yours until your skin hangs off your bones and you are no more than entrails dancing." The cursed girl then cavorts until she has -- in Rice's version -- a butcher chop off the shoes and attach clunky wooden feet. Even then, Rice shows the driven heroine tantalized as the red shoes dance before her on strings manipulated from above by the narrator.

In Andersen's story, as well as in the famed 1948 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film version, the girl eventually finds redemption in a forgiving church. Here, however, the girl bangs futilely on the paneled gliding doors that represent God's house. Nonetheless, Rice also shows that she refuses to accept that compulsions are forever damned and that forgiveness -- especially of oneself -- is indeed possible.