Give That Girl a Hand

Show #30: Handless, Ragged Wing Ensemble, March 5.

Lauren Spencer and Annamarie MacLeod in Handless.

Ragged Wing Ensemble’s new play Handless is based on the folk tale “The Handless Maiden,” and it’s very true to the meandering form of fairy tales, full of twists and turns and quests, which is another way to say that it’s two and a half hours of one damn thing after another.

Ragged Wing’s seventh show and the second (in a row) written by company cofounder Amy Sass, Handless is about Grace, a young woman with healing hands whose family gets visited by the devil, or someone very like, who tricks her father into promising her to him by demanding the first thing the father sees behind his house as payment for saving his life. Of course that first thing turns out to be Grace. Still the sinister Shine fails to take Grace away with him, as her touch stings him with an invisible thorn he can’t get out, so he compels her father to chop off her hands instead.

If that sounds like I’m telling the whole story, really that’s just the beginning of Grace’s travels and travails, which take her and everyone who cares about her (well, not her parents, who were pretty complacent about living off Shine’s bounty while waiting for him to collect her) on a seemingly endless series of journeys, dirty tricks and reversals of fortune.

One actress is already on stage when we enter. Kneeling by a candle and a small wicker box, she caresses cups while cleaning them with a cloth. We later—much later—learn this is Ash, a mysterious blind woman or spirit of some kind played by Lauren Spencer. Another ambiguously magical critter, Twig (DeLicia Childress), soon starts slinking up and down the isle silently handing people twigs and shooting them mysterious smiles and stern looks. Then Aleph Ayin struts in as Shine and makes a show of pissing in an unseen pool on the uppermost level of the stage, setting things quickly plummeting downhill.

Shine is a real problem, and not just for the Candle family. A preening fancypants in a white pageboy wig and long purple coat, it seems like he’s supposed to be mysterious and menacing, but he comes off more like a pretentious prick. Ayin is much stronger and more likeable in the more subdued role of a trusty steward later in the play, but the problem with Shine is less in the performance than in the way his part is written. There doesn’t seem to be much consistency to his motivation for doing the various things he does, unless it’s just to be a dick. All his stilted, inane, faux-poetic speeches about bright young flames and never sleeping and blah blah blah don’t help matters. You can tell he’s the devil because everything he says is irritating and tedious.

“I couldn’t have her,” he says, “but I could shape her, prune her little life and save the clippings.”  Really, everything he says is like that. The other unearthly characters too: Although Childress carries charisma as Twig, she only speaks in smirking riddles and nursery rhymes, and a little bit of that is already too much. Spencer has a gentle warmth as Ash, blind keeper of some kind of well-guarded sanctuary and seemingly Shine’s ex-girlfriend or something.

Shine makes a big show of not saying his name the first time he visits the Candle family, making someone drop something noisily every time it comes up, but the next time he runs into Ben Candle (in another guise, although to us he looks exactly the same, only in a cloak) he freely introduced himself as Mr. Shine, so who knows what the fuss is about. That may not be his name either, but it’s what his spirit buddies call him so it may as well be. Oh, and he really likes his pocket watch.  That may be significant, but it’s hard to get anything useful out of his portentous chatter.

Annamarie MacLeod makes an appealing Grace in her initial radiance and later tremulous reemergence, although her post-behanding snappishness comes off like a teenage snit, albeit with a much better reason than most. Ensemble member Keith Davis gives a particularly feeling performance as Colin, a lord who goes from jealously obsessing over his pear tree to blissfully in love with Grace, and he’s also a kindly figure as Grace’s father Ben Candle. (The fact that he plays both her father and her lover isn’t even as creepy as you’d think it would be.) Founding member Anna Shneiderman is mild and unassuming as Grace’s ailing mother and a no-nonsense house servant. Teenagers Sophia Sinsheimer and Henry Kinder are bright and amusing as Grace’s sister Millie and comically inept guard Piper.

Gray Morris’s costumes are mostly RenFaire basic, if literally a little rough around the edges. Twig and Ash wear robes with carefully cut-out tatters around the bottom, and those same bits cut off of theirs seem to have been sewn onto the bottom of Shine’s long purple coat to give the same ragged effect.

Plamena Milusheva’s tri-level set gives the actors lots of room to roam around in the small black-box space, as well as an impressive variety of nooks and crannies to stash props, open up to reveal a furnace, et cetera. Most strikingly, knots of ropes hang from the ceiling that descend to form trees, with apples on one and pears on the other. Aiden Fraser’s sound design is a strong mix of appropriate sound effects and moody movie-style music underscoring key moments.

As a director Sass is stronger in choreographing striking stage images than she is interpreting the text, in this case her own. As in most Ragged Wing shows I’ve seen, there are a few beautifully constructed visual moments that transcend the production as a whole.  Library shelves are represented by black-hooded figures holding open books in front of their faces, and these same figures flow into the various obstructions Grace has to overcome in the most perilous (and least explained) part of her quest.  She has to jump through a lot of hoops.  Why?  It’s that kind of story. It’s what you do.

There are a number of intriguing touches to the story—the replacing of Grace’s hands with some silver ones that just look like thick gloves, the numbering of pears to keep track of them—that get short shrift because there’s so much ground to cover.  Too much ground, really, and not just because the show’s too long (although it is), but because some of the later twists and turns are so underdeveloped that it’s hard to see why they’re there at all. Most dramatic, albeit easily resolved, is the swapping of love letters with cruel dispatches that threaten not just happiness but lives.

There are some nice touches in Sass’s script, among the mortals anyway.  Grace’s rhapsodic speech about the wonders of a baby is particularly touching, a lot of the stuff with Piper is funny, and the scenes between Grace and Colin are awfully sweet. As a folk tale it’s strongest when it’s about just plain folk—it’s when it tries to be magical that it goes horribly awry.  And that too, perversely enough, is just like in fairy tales.

Handless plays through March 27 at Central Stage, 5221 Central Ave. #A1, Richmond.

Bonus links: My past East Bay Express reviews of Ragged Wing’s Alice in Wonderland and The History of the Devil.

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