Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood
To begin with, the play is unmistakably feminist. For most fairy-tale princesses, gender combined with royal birth is destiny. But for Sleeping Beauty, freedom would seem even more limited, since she's cursed to fall asleep at the age of 16, and to sleep for a hundred years unless a prince awakens her with a kiss. The female version of Rip Van Winkle, she is the embodiment of passivity. She would seem to have absolutely no say in her destiny. Except that in Katharine Sherman's adaptation, Beauty does find one way to exercise her agency. The play's central conceit is that Aurora/Beauty actively chooses to prick her finger and go to sleep for a hundred yearsnot once but many times over. Seizing upon the tragic potential of the fairy tale, Sherman structures her play around the question of why.
In a cross between Groundhog Day and Waiting for Godot, this Sleeping Beauty traces Beauty's struggle to hold onto something of herself and her desires through the successive worlds in which she finds herself. We meet her first as a young girl in love with reading books about distant lands. Fascinated by geography, she wants more than anything to travel to the desert and feel the sun on her hair and skin, or visit the great mountain ranges, or, most of all, sail the seven seas. She's curious about what other places are like and she asks her mother a million questions about them. In the meantime, she'd settle for a hike, if only mother didn't forbid her to hike, lest she damage her most important "parts" (her wombthe thing that "makes heirs").
Beauty is inducted into patriarchy not merely by being taught what to think and desire, but also by being shown what not to think and desire. The various scenarios in the narrative portray the hallmarks of patriarchy: the play begins with infertility, moves through mandatory domesticity, pregnancy, witch hunting, and, of course, rape.
In one of the play's most unforgettable scenes, the King enters on horseback to find Beauty supine and unconscious. Following the traditional narrative, he falls madly in love with the sleeping girl. In his joy he spins around and sees a big doll, whom he immediately mistakes for Beauty. They dance, and he spins again, and winds up mistaking another doll for Beauty. Finally, he drags the real Beauty, still asleep, home, where his mother breaks it to him that this one's not a big doll but a living thinga princess. Later, he basically rapes her while she's still asleep.
When she wakes, she immediately pops out twin babies. Once she figures out who she's supposed to be this time around (daughter? debutante? bride?) and what's supposed to make her happy, she conforms. Okay, she'll be an adoring mother to the King's childrenand, it turns out, his concubine. It happens that he already has a Queen, who once she finds out that her husband has a mistress and that he has conceived twin infants with her, seeks revenge. First the Queen orders the twins killed (in a really gross way) and then she has Beauty brought in and tied to a stake to be burnt. Of course, Beauty is grateful when the King rescues her, but when he ties the Queen to the stake to be burned in Beauty's place, it's too much for her. Refusing to be complicit in witch burning, Beauty throws herself on the Queen's body and has to be dragged off. Whereupon, she runs up to the attic and pricks her finger again. Better to sleep it off than to be part of the cruel and violent worlds she finds herself in. At first, going to sleep is a gesture of hope: in a hundred years, there will be progress and the world will be freer.
In her dreams, Beauty appears as a puppet with swollen eyes (the puppetry in this production astounds). She wakes up on the cusp of the sea and stumbles forward, reaching out to something on the horizon. Each time, she falls down before she can reach her destination. Sherman's script captures the fragmented feel of dreams and nightmares, and she displays well the sense of sudden dislocation, the dissonance, and the sense of teetering identity and entrapment. One of the questions the play poses is whether it may only be in our dreams that our authentic selves appear, and the roles we play in our waking life may be only a sham.
The look of the play reinforces its messages. Having the entire cast wear wigs of steely platinum hair and have pale, washed-out make up just like Beauty, is a wonderful touch. The costumes (by David Hanzal) indicate which era the scenarios take place infrom the fluffy pink and teal blue gowns to the shivery white Victorian underwear to the punk torn tights and sixties hipster plaid pants and crazy-floral blouses. They are gorgeous and gender-bending and blending; they evoke a sphere of freedom and fluidity that Beauty, who's chained to her fictional identity, is tragically denied. When the actors go offstage and reappear in different costumes, you don't recognize them or connect them to individual performances. And that's the point: Nobody is one thing or another; no one is constrained to any single identity for life.
The casting of Justin Leaf as Beauty has the effect of offsetting the constructedness of gender roles. It's only for the first few scenes, and only at moments, that you notice that Beauty has the body of a man. Leaf is clearly an exceptional dancer. What makes him shine as Beauty is the sheer vulnerability he brings to the part. This is especially compelling in an episode in which he is suddenly forced to switch abruptly from angelic mother to Vegas stripper. It's a non-voluntary striptease and Leaf's eyes flare as he struts his stuff. When the music stops, he stands alone in a pool of white lights, stripped down to his underwear. Trying to cover his body with his hands, he lifts his chin ever so slightly in a gesture of defiance. "Beauty" may be degraded, but Aurora still has her dignity.
As it turns out, Beauty is foolish for believing that if she sleeps for another hundred years, she will find the world changed. Her dreams deceive her. The sea is always in motion; the waking world is static. In the end, the only thing that changes is Beauty, who comes to conclude that nothing else will. She does so only after enduring seven or so cycles (or 700 years) of being silenced and mocked and idealized, raped, put on pedestal, tied to a stake, and degraded. In the end, she makes it clear that between the brutality of the "real world" and sleep, she will always choose the latter.
Though there is hardly anything straightforward about this play, it serves to remind us that the essence of unkindness is to claim to understand a person better than she knows herself. For who can truly know another person's story? Once upon a time there was a girl who never wanted to be known as "Beauty." When no one believed she had a "real" name, she ran up to the attic and pricked her finger on a spindle. Only in dreams did she become who she really was"Aurora."
The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Katharine Sherman, conception by David Hanzal & Katharine Sherman, is being performed through December 11, 2016, at Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis, MN. To order tickets or for further information, visit www.collectiveunconsciousperformance.com.
Directed by David Hanzal