Monday, December 12, 2011

Bedeviled, Bothered, and Bewildered

When George Balanchine created his version of The Prodigal Son for Ballet Russes (using music by Sergei Prokofiev), he was working under the artistic leadership of Sergei Diaghilev. At the ballet's world premiere on May 21, 1929 at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, Serge Lifar danced the title role.

Cover art for Edward Villella's autobiography, entitled Prodigal Son

Since then, many great dancers have followed in Lifar's footsteps.
In the following video clip from a Ballet West production of The Prodigal Son, viewers see Christopher Sellars as the young man about to set out on his rebellious journey.

Another idealistic youth who got the wind kicked out of his sails was Candide. Although the 1956 operetta by Leonard Bernstein, Hugh Wheeler, and Lillian Hellman was a much more lighthearted affair than Balanchine's ballet (it had additional lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche and Richard Wilbur), Voltaire's hero went on quite a journey.

The show that began with "The Best of All Possible Worlds" ended on a far more humble and sobering note. In the following clip from Bernstein's 70th birthday celebration at Tanglewood, Seiji Ozawa conducts "Make Our Garden Grow" with Jerry Hadley as Candide and Dawn Upshaw as Cunegonde.

During his life, mythologist Joseph Campbell examined the challenges, fears, battles, and eventual return home of the "prodigal son" as a changed person, someone who had overcome great hardships on the road to becoming a cultural hero. But while men like Candide and the Prodigal Son endure a brutal journey on their road to disillusionment, women are often treated with a lighter touch.

Whether one thinks of Cunegonde (Erie Mills singing "Glitter and be Gay" in the New York City Opera's 1986 telecast of Candide) or two female characters created by Patrick Dennis (Agnes Gooch and Belle Poitrine), the ladies seem better able to cope with disillusionment.

But not always.

First published in 1812, The Girl Without Hands was one of the Germanic fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. Like many fairy tales, it was bloody, violent, and focused on the never-ending battle between good and evil.

Audrey Brisson (The Girl) and Stuart Goodwin (The Father)
in The Wild Bride (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

The Kneehigh Theatre's touring production of The Wild Bride roared into the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre last week like a traveling tornado. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, the evening offers a phenomenal display of versatility and virtuosity by a talented ensemble of six performers.

Stuart McLoughlin narrates as the Devil who fails to pierce the aura of a young girl’s purity after using his trickery to win the girl from her poor and slightly dimwitted father. As in numerous battles with Satanic forces, the devil is in the details.

The story is a variation on a simple theme: A poor miller agrees to let the Devil have whatever was in his back yard in exchange for unlimited wealth. At the time he is making the deal, he doesn't know that his daughter is in their back yard.

Talented evildoers wait a while to claim their prize and, three years later, the Devil returns for the miller's daughter. When the miller tries to find a way out of the deal, the Devil orders him to chop off the girl's hands or else the Devil will take the miller as well.

Audrey Brisson, Patrycja Kujawska and Eva Magyar
in The Wild Bride (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In Kneehigh's production, three actors portray the miller's daughter at increasing stages of maturity. Audrey Brisson is the girl, Patrycja Kujawska is the young woman living in the wild, and Eva Magyar is the mature woman who has given birth to a son and kept him alive throughout several brutal winters.

Patrycja Kujawska as The Wild (Photo by: Steve Tanner)

The ability to create a transformational journey for a character lies at the core of a writer's creative skills.  Finding a way to bring an audience along on that journey lies at the core of a stage director's skills. In his program note, Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone writes:
"The theatre regularly traffics in magic. But in a play, the magic lies in transformation, in our collective imagining.  We dream together in the theatre, and the result is that we are transported to a different time and place.  When the play takes place in a nonrealistic environment, we are asked to let our imagination run wild. Together, the actors and the audience collude to make the invisible manifest.  In the theatre, we are all part of creating magic.
Kneehigh understands this. The company creates work that seeks to foster a sense of conscious wonder. Their shows are celebrations of everything we can't see but know to be true. They use music and dance not as window dressing, but as conduits to the unknown. They are comfortable in the world of abstraction because it allows them to talk about things that are real."
Stuart Godwin and Patrycja Kujawska in The Wild Bride
(Photo by: Steve Tanner)

The great theatrical trick that Emma Rice has pulled off in her production of The Wild Bride is to make the entire evening -- even in its roughest moments -- seem effortless. The audience is so tantalized, so easily distracted, that few will notice the dexterity with which Rice's actors switch from portraying a character to playing one ore more musical instruments.

As a stage director, Rice's sleight of hand is so deftly executed that even the grotesque seems perfectly natural. During the segment in The Wild, when Patrycja Kujawska wears wire sculptures to replace the hands that were chopped off by the girl's father, I found her movements as graceful and mesmerizing as those of Edward Scissorhands.

Stuart Goodwin scores some nice moments of physical comedy (doubling as the girl's father and the Prince she marries her). I found Eva Magyar's Woman to be especially moving. However, much of the production rides on the evil, lustful shoulders of Stuart McLoughlin's lean, mean, and hungry Devil.

In many ways, watching a performance of Kneehigh's production of the Wild Bride is like attending a master class in storytelling technique and theatrical craftsmanship. Stu Barker's bluesy score carries the action through two hours of stagecraft that demonstrates as many physical tricks -- using everything from blood to mud -- as Cirque du Soleil.  Here's the trailer:

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