Decadent red loveseats ornament the dimly lit lobby of the Minetta Lane Theatre. Incense wafts overhead, simultaneously conjuring the atmosphere of a church and a brothel. Company XIV, which is this season occupying this debauched cathedral, certainly knows how to make a strong first impression. Holding us in thrall to their delightfully idiosyncratic vision is another matter. This is especially true of the rococo burlesque troupe's take on Snow White: An arresting overture gives way to long passages of confusion as the show sags under the weight of its own lofty ambitions.
A fixture of the Brooklyn performance scene for years, Company XIV is best known for its annual holiday spectacular, Nutcracker Rouge. That show takes the skeleton of the Tchaikovsky ballet and decorates it with circus tricks and burlesque choreographed to pop, jazz, and baroque music — all of which take precedence over the thin plot. While it creates something of a theatrical tummy ache, it is not particularly out-of-step with the source material (Tchaikovsky never cared much for story). In producing Snow White, Company XIV and its auteur, Austin McCormick (who conceived, choreographed, and directed both shows), take on a well-known story with a far more robust beginning, middle, and end. It doesn't hold up as well under the variety-hour treatment.
McCormick and crew seem to take the dramaturgy of Snow White very seriously in the beginning, drawing heavily from the original German fairy tale (which also works better for their Weimar cabaret aesthetic): Die Königin (a deliciously wicked Laura Careless) is a beautiful queen waited on by four footmen silenced by bejeweled ball gags. These Königlicher Hofstaat bear four magical mirrors through which the queen confirms that she is the fairest of them all. One day, the mirror answers that Schneewittchen (the compact and powerful Hilly Bodin) is fairer than the queen. The queen initiates a plot to destroy the young upstart, who narrowly escapes death time and again thanks to her trusty crew of dwarves.
The strikingly beautiful Lea Helle narrates…in German. She occasionally throws in an English word or phrase, creating the disorienting feeling of landing in a foreign land, desperately clinging to any recognizable markers. These monologues are likely to fly over the heads of those who don't speak German. No matter what language they choose to employ, however, one would prefer Company XIV to show us the story rather than tell us.
Undeniably, McCormick gives us plenty of stimulating things to see and hear (although it is not obvious how all of it serves the tale): Schneewittchen does a sensual ballet. Mexican skeletons perform flamenco to Britney Spears' "Toxic" (operatically delivered in Marcy Richardson's shimmering soprano). The ensemble illustrates the song "A Corset Can Do a Lot for a Lady" with mannequins. In one particularly beautiful passage, a Renaissance dance underscores aerial tricks.
Lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew manages to illuminate this moment as if by candlelight, giving us the feeling of seeing a traveling circus in the Elizabethan court.
Unfortunately, the lighting is rarely this perfect. Yew keeps everything alluringly dark, making it awfully hard to see the performers' bedroom eyes. This is further complicated by the use of projections and live video (also by Yew), which are executed well, but overly utilized to no clear benefit. As a result, much of McCormick's staging is lost to the shadows.
So are Zane Pihlstrom's habitually creative sets and costumes. The set emphasizes the artifice of theatricality, showcasing an exposed backstage (the actors stretch and get into makeup as we take our seats). The staging occurs in and around an added proscenium, buttressed on one side by a spiral staircase. The number of looks Pihlstrom is able to create is truly breathtaking: powdered wigs, fishnet stockings, fetish gear, and gold embroidered justaucorps come together in a seamless mélange.
One wishes that the other elements of McCormick's vision had such cohesion. His work is clearly informed by art and culture transcending time and nationality, much of it the best of the best. Yet under the director's unfocused staging, Schubert lieder vie for attention with circus tricks. We're never quite sure where to look, and key moments of the story are inevitably lost (or narrated in German). It becomes far too easy to allow one's mind to wander away from the cacophony of it all.
This Snow White is not the fairest of them all, but that is not to say that Company XIV's heady brew can never work. With the right amount of directorial framing and a judicious execution of elements, the troupe can surely apply its sensory feast to more rigorous storytelling, keeping us riveted until the very end.