Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Red Shoes is a famous title, best known as a classic 1948 British movie. That film is about a ballerina whose rise is linked to the production of a ballet based on the fairy tale. The fairy tale itself, hardly suitable bedtime fare for young children, is not one of Andersen's better known stories. It is a morality tale about a girl whose vanity brings a spell upon the red shoes she insists on wearing to church. She is unable to remove the shoes, which cause her to dance uncontrollably, and without end. The only way for her to escape this curse is to have her feet chopped off. Even then, she must endure more humiliation before she has sufficiently atoned to return to a state of grace.
That is not quite the story Sass and Richardson tell. What they retain are tantalizing red shoesseveral pairs, in different stylesthat overpower those who wear them, causing a loss of control that drives its victim to desperate measures. However, there is no clear indication of moral weakness, such as the fairy-tale girl's vanity, to bring about this curse. As splendid as the play is to watch, the pleasure felt during the performance diminishes afterwards as we scratch our heads wondering what the show means to tell us.
The play's setting is a mythologized land of post-war urban film noir. After a brief, stark opening image that foretells the story's trajectory, the lights come up on an unnamed young woman curled up on the fold-down bed in her decidedly low-rent one-room apartment, as she is awakened by her ringing telephone. This woman displays signs of extreme anxiety, hesitant in every move and unable even to answer her phone, despite (or perhaps because of) her landlady's shrill shouts that she do so. While Richardson is the only actor who appears on stage, three unseen actors contribute voices and shadows that pass by her window. One of these, the voice of the landlady, is cleverly animated by a pipe vent-cover that flaps back and forth with every syllable she trumpets.
Our heroine shows signs of extreme agoraphobia as she goes about a ritualized daily series of tasks, which include wheeling out a doll house in which she enacts scenes from what might (or might not) have been her prior life, using a rag dollsmore Joel Sass design genius. After donning a full apron and safety goggles, she peers at the doll house and dolls through a magnifying glass, as if trying to discern hidden forces at play. The story she enacts involves a hard-boiled detective called on to find a missing showgirl, whose description sounds like a glammed-up version of our heroine, and the trail he follows in an attempt to track her down.
Some of the doll house characters, as well as those heard as voices outside her apartment, show up as flesh and blood people, played by Richardson in cleverly wrought costume changes. She is, in turns, the foreboding landlady, enormous wrench in hand as she sets about repairing the apartment's pipes; a newsboy balancing on one red roller skate, who brings in her paper and reads headlines that are as apt today as they were 60 years ago, such as "Presidential statement clarifies nothing"; the detective, concealed behind a trench coat and fedora; and the showgirla femme fatale with luxuriously long red hair, a sizzling black dress, and a predilection for red shoes. In the latter enactment Richardson dazzles as she struggles to overcome the power of the shoes, her body and her feet moving in opposite directions. Richardson choreographed this and other movement pieces, bringing out both antic comedy and the terror of losing control.
Even though there is no real depth to the characters, Richardson's performance is phenomenal, conveying the resignation to fears and loneliness of this woman held captive by mysterious circumstances. There is a zaniness to her portrayal, and to the other characters into which she shape-shifts, and Richardson's knack for physical humor serves her very well. There is a sweetness to the central character, and though we don't know to what degree she might have brought her condition upon herself, it is easy to have sympathy for her. The club singerwho performs a song that expresses romantic love as insatiable hungerprojects a tragic fate that may have been caused by the red shoes, or perhaps is the reason the red shoes came to her. Cause and effect are given short shrift.
Just as Joel Sass's playful set is an indelible part of telling this tale, so is Sean Healey's sound design, with near constant music (some of it resembling film-noir soundtrack, some chipper nightlife tunes) and the sounds of ominous footsteps, the insistent whistle of a teapot, the roaring of a furnace below, and the screeching terror of a subway train galloping through its darkened tunnel. That last effect is also the sublime work of Bill Healey, who designed the lighting for the show. Add to this Megan Potter's excellent costume design, creating an iconic look for each character, and The Red Shoes is a joyride of both sound and sight.
Like the Hans Christian Andersen original, Sass and Richardson's take on The Red Shoes is a gloomy tale, in spite of the giddiness with which they have designed and staged it. I really, really enjoyed and admired the showmanship, though not so much the dark drift of the story. Moreover, I could not put a firm hand on that drift. The events are plain enough to see, but how they came about, what preceded them, and why those tyrannical red shoes were the outcome for our poor heroine, is a mystery. Or, is it that there is no how, what, or whythat she was dealt random cards, like anyone, and hers was a losing hand? Pretty grim. Perhaps the absence of a moral tract makes the horror all the greater. And yet, I come back to it, I had a swell time watching the spectacle of her descent.
The Red Shoes continues at Open Eye Figure Theatre through March 19, 2017, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $18.00 general admission, $15.00 for seniors (65+) and $12.00 for students. For tickets and information go to openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Writers: Joel Sass and Kimberly Richardson; Direction, Set Design and Prop Design: Joel Sass; Light Design: Bill Healey; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Additional Music Arrangements: Greg Brosofske; Choreography: Kimberly Richardson; Assistant Director: Noah Sommers Haas; Stage Manager: Salima Seale; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz
Cast: Kimberly Richardson, with Noah Sommers Haas, Ariane Mass and Rick Miller