Seven Boston playwrights; seven new takes on the works of the Brothers Grimm. That’s the instantly intriguing premise behind Company One’s new anthology play Grimm, playing through Aug. 14 at the Boston Center for the Arts.
The seven playwrights are John Oluwole ADEkoje (The Overwhelming), Lydia R. Diamond (Stick Fly), Marcus Gardley (And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi), Kirsten Greenidge (Milk Like Sugar), John Kuntz (The Salt Girl), Melinda Lopez (Orchids to Octopi), and Gregory Maguire (whose novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West inspired the hit musical play Wicked). The fairy tales they tackle are deep and perplexing, full of lust and danger--perfect fodder for contemporary reinvention.
The anthology is bracketed by The Seven Stage a Comeback, Maguire’s sequel to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as the dwarfs--heartbroken and lonely now that Snow White is gone--set out to track her down. As they cross frigid mountain passes and brave the elements--gingerly carrying Snow White’s glass coffin--the dwarfs slowly arrive at an alarming consensus: they’re not simply going to drop in and say hi: they are going to exact revenge. The underlying theme is rich: do our early dreams and desires ever completely let us go?
That theme recurs in Thanksgiving, in which Greenidge freshens up the tale Clever Else by reincarnating Else as Nicole, a Boston woman facing tough times after her husband loses his job. Nicole is a smart young woman, but she’s made a wrong turn somewhere in her life; talking with her two best friends as the three women wait on their children, Nicole recounts her youthful hopes, now long since dashed, and longs for another sort of life. The straits of economic class and gender, together with her life choices, have restricted Nicole’s options.
Sexism rears its head once again, right along with the prickly question of race, in The White Bride and the Black Bride, in which Diamond presents three readers--dressed as schoolgirls in skirts and shiny hair bands--and allows them to riff on the original fairy tale even as they recount it aloud. Their bickering and asides poke uproarious fun at the overt prejudices of the fairy tale, while commenting on our own culture’s continuing undercurrents of prejudice.
A triptych of short vignettes revisits a religious community beset by a serpent in Lopez’ Stories About Snakes. In one variant, a strict but loving mother intercedes when her daughter starts a naive friendship--verging on romance--with a snake that brings her "baubles" in the form of pearls. In another take, the mother-daughter relationship grows between a hard-worked wife who has only given birth to sons: she lives a desperate life in a house full of rough-mannered men, forever fearful of their anger, while the beggar girl she has secretly begun to care for strikes up a relationship with a snake who rewards her with a golden crown. The play deftly weighs different forms of wealth: money versus freedom versus the protections afforded by family and community. (This segment also works well as a subtle, even subversive, meditation on the Biblical stories of human temptation and downfall in the Book of Genesis.)
Gardley recasts Hansel and Gretel as Half Handsome & Regrettable, in which a modern brother and sister--American teens abroad in Germany--take on an overbearing museum tour guide. The action unfolds as the tour group pauses in front of a carefully preserved gingerbread house--which turns out not be such a sweet treat after all.
Kuntz creates a mythic, erotic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with his episode, titled simply Red. Bondage, power dynamics, sexual fetishes: it’s all there, as Kuntz gleefully mines a tale already rife with male erotic aggression, ripe feminine sexuality, and transvestism. The color scheme is bright and the props are suitable garish--hello, circus swing/sex sling--but the humor is dark and the warped psychology of a dysfunctional relationship is note-perfect.
ADEkoje bursts out in similar style with Crybaby Jones, based on The Frog King, which introduces a grown man with a baby fetish who lives in a dumpster on the outskirts of a place called Plastic City. This enchanted kingdom of the trifling and the trivial is overseen by a ruler with a rash; since Crybaby Jones is the local purveyor of a magically curative powder, the king sends his beautiful daughter to Jones’ dumpster to procure him some. She’s armed with the king’s secret weapon: a tale of woe so resonant that no one can resist it. But to part with the powder at the wrong moment entails magical consequences: Crybaby Jones faces losing his diaper for the form of a frog.
The different segments benefit from the touches of two different directors, Shawn Lacount and Summer L. Williams--a wise choice that allows a range of distinct styles and tones to set the pieces apart, even as they are bound up in themes common to fairy tales. The cast are versatile enough to embody an array of characters and slip from style to style with rapid, complete transformations: the same actors who make up the wool-cap-and-fingerless-gloves-wearing dwarves also sport homespun clothes fit for an Amish community, sexy outfits from the trendy core of America’s most cosmopolitan cities, or wardrobe straight from fantasy stereotype (as with those schoolgirls)--kudos to costumer Miranda Giurleo.
Sound designer and composer Arshan Gailus also creates distinct sonic settings for the different segments: from the whistle of a cold wind to the sounds of brooks and birdsong. John R. Malinowski’s expert lighting design explores and enhances the emotional shifts of each piece against a well-conceived set design by Cristina Todesco--part sk8 park, part fantasyland, marked not only by the surprisingly versatile gingerbread house, but also by a bright, literally splashy paint job and the presence of large flowers, sculpted of papier-mâché and hoisted over the set like hovering mosaics.
Grimm, though named for the brothers, is anything but: it’s a glossy, funny revisitation of a popular literary means for sorting through life’s terrors--warts, evil step-mothers, and all.
Grimm continues through August 14 at the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.
Tickets cost $35 general admission for Thursday and Sunday shows; $38 general admission for Friday and Saturday. Wile Wednesday tickets cost $20 general admission. Limited rush tickets available one hour before curtain time for $20. Students pay $15 for all shows (valid ID required), and senior citixzens pay $30 for best available seats.
Tickets can be bought online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com or via phone at 617-933-8600. Purchases may also be made at the box office, either at the BCA or at Boston University Theatre Box Office, at 264 Huntington Avenue.
There will be post-show talkbacks on July 23 and July 30.
Performance schedule: Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.. There will also be one Sunday 4:00 p.m. performance, on Aug. 14.