Updated: Jun 20, 2020
“It’s … a meticulously cut gem of theatrical craft, reminding us that, indeed, fairy tales aren’t just for children after all.”
Once upon a time, long before television or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, children were told bedtime fairy tales complete with monsters, goblins, kings and queens. Over time these fairy tales became watered down and some were all but lost.
In “The Secret in the Wings,” Directed by Patti Cumby, and presented at STAGEStheatre, Fullerton, playwright Mary Zimmerman resurrects a septet of these little known gruesome tales, in a terrifically stylized production that is a delightful antithesis of shows traditionally seen this time of year.
Praised for her Tony-winning recycling of Ovid’s myths,“Metamorphoses,” it doesn’t in the least diminish the affective calamities, misadventures and misfortunes of her Zimmerman's montage play, although the tales are softened and ameliorated with much humor and song.
Gilt-edged composers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, in their renowned folkloric style, have created a set of perfectly themed melodies and incidental music interspersed with buoyant songs and voices full of anapests and iambs, prose and limericks.
Told from a child’s point of view, the relatively obscure tales become fragmented units, weaving and interlocking with each other in the hope that if the audience gets lost, they will feel a sense of childlike wonder too.
Motivated by elements of one we all know…”Beauty and the Beast,” Zimmerman sets the collection of fables' dark mystery against her signature wit and humor, intertwining the narratives so each tale is left at the climactic point of disaster — only to be later resolved. Story overlays story, and bits and pieces of tales that are never completed share space with the main narrative lines. At times, the collage of tales assume a level of abstraction that becomes a fevered fantasy.
Minimalist and inventive, the set features a murky room in an undefined, cluttered house, which may be the basement, containing a long set of open-backed stairs, a small loft, old antique trappings, taxidermy and appliances, a trap door to nether regions, and a large open space. It's limbo. A few 1940s-vintage table and floor lamps carve out the only light and dark in Jon Gaw’s delicately brooding design. Costumes consist chiefly of somewhat shabby formal wear of 40 or 50 years ago, constructed and designed also by Patti Cumby. There are a few chairs scattered, and a few gowns. The rest is gesture, movement, and narration.
Despite the fanciful theatrical language, “Secret in the Wings” confronts the complex fears of childhood with relevant immediacy. The first scene in particular offers quite a jolt. The clever word and image play of that opening sequence flavors the entire production, from its most gruesome to its most comic moments.
A little girl is having a bad night. Her oddball parents are going out to a fancy party—again—and to make matters worse, they are leaving her in the care of the neighbor next door. The little girl cannot believe it: "But he's an ogre. He has a tail!" "Don't be ridiculous," Dad says, albeit the little girl’s fears are not entirely ungrounded as the evening unveils.
Soon enough, the sweaty, lumbering fellow (played gauchely by the splendid Paul Burt) appears — replete with actual tail — ambling down a staircase into the kid’s nightmares and into her reality.
In her eyes, the neighbor is indeed a boorish monster — albeit one who likes to tell tales, and he spends the night startling the little girl, but at the same time entertaining her. As he reads from a book, the characters in each of the tales materialize, with each yarn breaking off just at its bleakest moment before giving way to the next one. The neighbor (who constantly asks the little girl to marry him), in an effort to distract her from his tail, sets out to tell her a series of fables which come to life:
In the first, the wives of three princes are banished by a jealous and angry nursemaid, who blinds them and sets them atop a mountain with no food. Starving, they soon start eating their children for survival. In another, a queen is resurrected by her loving husband who, rather than rewarding him for bringing her back to life, takes to the arms of another man.
“The Princess Who Wouldn't Laugh” has made a deal with her suitors, a group of gold-digging conventional entertainers, to make her laugh, but are all beheaded in ceaseless procession for her lack of amusement. Their beheadings, a visual gag with traffic cones over their heads and large rubber balls in their laps, are hilarious.
There's even a hopscotching chorus of girls to chant the grim plot of "Allerleirah," the King’s daughter, who is the image of her dead mother and is courted by a father who somehow cannot realize that - life is not like that.
"Silent for Seven Years" is played out as a long pantomime, almost balletic in complexity. In the climax, seven children, who have been transformed into swans, fly desperately to their sister, who will restore them to their proper forms. Onstage we see a circle of actors in furious concentration, each frantically flapping a set of detachable wings to create the sound of flying, and each in individual passionate artistry.
And so, on it goes with each of the tales leading us deeper “into the woods,” if I can borrow an expression, but not without a little humor, and even a few great songs to help light the way.
The players, nameless, faceless, and interchangeable, are not identified by specific character names. Each one, strong veteran actors all, delightfully convincing, seem to disappear within the ensemble, nimble and graceful in their pantomime, dialogue and song. Without a moment’s notice, they change characters and the fast pace challenges the audience to keep up with each story.
We come away knowing something new about the capabilities of the stage and what nine talented actors can represent on it - Judy Mina-Ballard, David Bradbury, Paul Burt, Adam Bradley Clinton, Emily Curington, Mady Durbin, Jamie Hadley, Stan Morrow, Edgar Andrew Torrens. Patti Cumby as Director is a cut above most directors at their peaks, and her prints are also on every aspect of the show, from Sound to Publicity.
“The Secret in the Wings” opened October 5th at STAGEStheatre and runs through November 4th, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday Matinees at 2pm. Highly Recommended! Tickets are $22.00, $20.00 for students and seniors. For reservations please visit www.stagesoc.org.
It’s a wonderfully dark, wildly inventive production – a meticulously cut gem of theatrical craft, reminding us that, indeed, fairy tales aren’t just for children after all.