Fractured Fairy Tale

28. February, 2012 Theater 1 comment

Cutting Ball cut its teeth (or, I suppose, its ball) on experimental theater, so the only real surprise about the company dabbling in ensemble devised theater is that it hasn’t done it before. Codirected by associate artistic director Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino, the commissioned world premiere Tontlawald is inspired by the work of Poland’s Teatr Zar, which came to the city last year as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (although this piece has been in the works a few years longer than that).

Rebecca Frank, Marilet Martinez and Madeline H.D. Brown in Tontlawald. Photo by Annie Paladino.

The play is loosely based on an Estonian fairy tale about a girl named Lona who wanders into a spooky forest. She spends many years there playing with her new best friend, a forest princess named Gracie, while Gracie’s mother the queen sends a double home in Lona’s place to tend to her cruel stepmother. With a minimal script by Cutting Ball resident playwright Eugenie Chan, it’s a fractured fairy tale in which tiny bits of narration frame the story, only to give you the roughest sense of what’s going on. The shards of spoken monologue and ritualized dialogue are enticingly poetic, with heavy and effective use of repetition. Most of the action is told through movement and song that represents the story mostly in thematic abstractions.

The set is one big white net covering the black-box stage, with a matching net pattern painted on the floor, and the cast of eight is dressed all in reds and oranges. David Sinaiko’s dramatic lighting is strikingly effective in easing the action into a mythic space.

Marilet Martinez’s intensely staring Lona speaks only in fragments, never offering much of a hint of what the girl might be thinking. Madeline H.D. Brown is marvelously compelling as the cruel stepmother who’s always harsh with Lona but transfixed with love for her husband (a gentle Wiley Naman Strasser) as they stare unceasingly in each other’s eyes, the fingers of their outstretched hands skittering around each other like spiders. Her final scene is especially magnetic.

Sam Gibbs and Strasser play a couple of rough-and-tumble forest folk wrestling and giggling like happy idiots as Lona wanders into the dark forest, the Tontlawald. There Lona meets Rebecca Frank’s always-smiling, childlike Gracie, and the two frolic together with the rest of the cast (except Brown) as other happy woodland denizens. (Meg O’Connor and Liz Wand round out the chorus, unassigned to any individual characters.)

There’s a whole lot of singing in the show, and the cast has gorgeous voices, whether it’s Brown singing a jazzy old-time torch song, Cindy Im murmuring a Sardinian lullaby, or the chorus crooning  doo-wop and barbershop harmonies or an Eastern European sounding chant (that’s apparently an “Aboriginal Song” by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins instead). It’s mostly a cappella, some wall-thumping and viola-plucking aside. The scenes are separated by the ensemble singing the next section number in unison.

Choreographed by Laura Arrington, the staging is rich with images that are enthralling as they are mysterious. At one point Martinez bats at a patch of light the way a cat might, moves it up her body and then blows as if it’s a feather she’s trying to blow away.  Frank writhes on the floor struggling to pronounce the words “cock crow” as if she were just now learning to speak. Brown’s wicked stepmother walks around in one high-heeled boot and one bare foot. Strasser as the father walks laboriously across the back wall while Martinez’s Lona crawls under him, keeping her face between his legs.

Viewers should be sure to read the summary of the original folk tale in the program beforehand, or many things will be unclear, because they’re never indicated in the staging, such as what character Im is playing (the forest queen) or what happens to Lona’s father. Other parts won’t become any clearer even if you have done your homework: what it means when people writhe or crawl across the back wall, who if anyone plays the doppelganger of the girl sent home in her place, what the final image might symbolize. In fact, I only just now discovered through a caption for the image above that a scene in which Frank is lying atop Martinez is intended to depict the creation of Lona’s double; in performance it merely seemed that Lona and Gracie were becoming more intimate all the time. It’s not entirely surprising that there’s an awkward pause at the end when people aren’t entirely sure whether the show is over, especially because it’s only an hour long.

It’s a dazzling performance that sometimes perplexes but never bores. Even when I’m not quite sure why the bewitching performers are doing what they’re doing, I’m awfully glad they’re doing it.

Through March 11
Exit on Taylor
277 Taylor St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #23 of 2012, attended February 25.


About author
  1. 2 / 29 / 2012 10:25 pm

    Excellent review, Sam! You describe many of the details quite well. I agree that this was an excellent, even extraordinary, production.

    BTW, do you think you might include Theatrestorm on your blog list?





Your comment:

Add your comment