Grim Fairy Tale

20. December, 2011 Theater No comments

“You know, for a feminist folk tale, this book isn’t half bad.” It’s the devil who says that in The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, but in this case he’s not steering you wrong. The only misleading thing is that he understates the case.

Audrey Brisson, Patrycja Kujawska and Éva Magyar in The Wild Bride. Photo courtesy of

Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre Company dazzled Bay Area audiences in 2009 with director Emma Rice’s inventive stage adaptation of the Noēl Coward film Brief Encounter in its US premiere at American Conservatory Theater. Now Rice and Kneehigh are back with another adaptation, not from film but from folklore. This time it’s Berkeley Rep that brings us the American premiere of Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride, and it’s fantastic—for my money, better than Brief Encounter.

The Wild Bride takes its inspiration from a German fairy tale, “The Girl Without Hands,” that’s one of the many collected by the Brothers Grimm. The devil comes to a poor miller saying that he’ll make the miller rich if he’ll just give the devil whatever is in his backyard. Knowing there’s nothing there but an apple tree, the miller agrees, but unbeknownst to him, his daughter is in the backyard at the time. The devil’s ready to carry the girl off, but he can’t touch her because she’s too pure, so he forces her father to cut off her hands. Even that doesn’t sully her enough for the devil to take her, so he stalks off to wait for the world to wear her down. Understandably peeved by the whole experience, the handless girl goes off to find her way in the world, and believe it or not that’s just the beginning of the girl’s adventures and tribulations.

This is not the first time this particular story has been brought to the East Bay stage. Just last year Ragged Wing Ensemble offered up its own original adaptation in Richmond, called Handless. But Kneehigh’s version really captures the magic of folklore brought to life.

One of Rice’s great innovations in The Wild Bride is to have the part of the girl played by three distinctly non-identical women: a brunette, a blonde and a redhead. Rice and writer Carl Gross also cast the story very much as a fairy tale, with the devil/narrator reading it in a storybook before he decides to go cause trouble in the story itself. The script is lyrical, with much of the dialogue in rhyme, and the protagonist herself doesn’t speak for the majority of it. The women wear blue aprons when they’re not in character, dancing behind whichever one of them is playing the title character at the moment or playing musical instruments.

The cast is superb from top to bottom, though that sort of ranking doesn’t really apply to such a well-utilized ensemble. Stuart McLoughlin is a magnetic devil in a sharp pinstripe suit and fedora, strumming a guitar and singing sinister songs based heavily on American blues (the terrific music is by Stu Barker). He moves smoothly from friendly and casual to monstrously lewd and menacing, at one point playing the terrified upside-down girl like a standup bass.

Stuart Goodwin is funny and heartwarming as the jolly, silver-tongued father (“oh darling daughter, daughter darlin’,” he says more than once) and the nebbishy, Scottish-accented king who finds the girl stealing his carefully catalogued and numbered pears and falls in love with her. The fact that the same actor plays her father and her lover is a little disturbing, but it was also true in Handless, because it’s an awfully convenient bit of doubling, seeing as how one character is out of her life by the time the other shows up.

Audrey Brisson is tremendously endearing as the wide-eyed, playful young girl, with acrobatic movements and a beautiful, full-bodied singing voice that’s put to good use once she’s handed off the role to the next woman (although “handed off” may be an unfortunate turn of phrase, considering the circumstances). Patrycja Kujawska is bewitching as the near-feral, nonverbal young woman whom the king finds in his garden, doing a fierce, animalistic dance (choreography by Etta Murfitt) or giddily enjoying life with the king. Where the original has the king commission silver hands made for her, this version has her rigged with fearsome bladed instruments as prosthetics.  Éva Magyar has an assured, commanding presence as the full-grown woman, also doing a dazzlingly intense dance, this one with an air of vistory.

There are magical touches aplenty in Rice’s staging. Magyar realistically manipulates a lifesize puppet deer, and Brisson voices the King’s mother, her arms protruding through a painted portrait. The band is a fluid mixture of the actors who aren’t in a scene at the moment, with Ian Ross as its only constant, hopping from instrument to instrument as needed.  Bill Mitchell’s enchanting set is a jumble of ladders and tree branches, rocking chairs and buckets.

It’s a very grim fairy tale, with plenty of maiming, murder and woe, but in the same sense that many fairy tales are pretty gruesome if you think about them.  (Consider Little Red Riding Hood, with all its grandma-eating and wolf-gutting.) The hand-chopping, for example, is symbolized simply by the girl dipping her hands into a bucket of red paint. It’s shaggy-doggier than most, with the handless girl going through one damn thing after another, but that just gives you more appreciation for the heroine’s spirit and fortitude.  If the devil’s waiting for her to be crushed and sullied by the hard road she travels, he’s in for a long wait.

The Wild Bride
Through January 22
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #117 of 2011, attended December 7.

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