Thursday, August 21, 2008

Grimm Tales

My review of Grimm Tales appears in this week's WE.

‘Grimm Tales’ mines the macabre in children’s lit

By Andrea Warner

They say youth is wasted on the young. Try telling that to the innovative crew behind Grimm Tales, a loved and lauded play from Victoria, who are now chasing each other from scene to scene through one of Vancouver’s most challenging new “venues.” Perhaps only a fledgling theatre company like ITSAZOO would be so ballsy as to stage a two-hour walking play through the manicured but steep terrain at Queen Elizabeth Park. (Word to the wise: wear comfortable shoes to fully embrace this wacky forest of fun.)

Grimm Tales, written by Sebastien Archibald, who is also part of the ensemble, revisits the most traumatic, familiar, and eyebrow-raising of fairytales. The tales on their own are often macabre and scary — complex lessons in morality, ethics, and evil. It’s like CNN, but with better writing.

In Grimm Tales’ twisted take, Hansel and Gretel are tour guides through the Enchanted Woods, a dark place that’s home to a multitude of strange people, all of them looking for a happy ending. Funny, cute, and nicely paced, it works like a well-oiled machine, entertaining adults and kids alike. Under Chelsea Haberlin’s direction, the talented cast keeps everything moving at breakneck speed.

Ryan Hesp’s Prince craves adventure and has an insatiable eye for the ladies, constantly finding himself engaged to needy princesses. Hesp brings great moments of humour to his arrogant and entitled alter-ego. Peter Carlone is suitably creepy as Fred, the sinister fellow based on the story of Bluebeard, who warns his ladylove not to look inside his secret room. Carlone also plays band member Donkey with a gleeful dazedness. Ingrid Hansen’s physical transformation into the Cat is a neat combination of hands curling into paws and long legs moving with feline agility.

If watching Colby Wilson and Katie Hood interact as German siblings Hansel and Gretel doesn’t bring a smile to your face, check for a heartbeat — their enthusiasm is contagious. Wilson’s comedic timing and off-handed improv style elicit bursts of unrestrained laughter, particularly when catching the small bits he mutters offhandedly. His wide, innocent eyes and loose attachment to his accent are incredibly charming. Hood is a tiny terror, and she perfectly captures the older-sister vibe, half-heartedly attempting to reel in Hansel’s impulsive whimsy, playing the perfect straight woman. She gets to show off her kick-ass girl power as well, as she questions why only pretty girls get happy endings before facing off against her evil stepmother in the candy-coated gingerbread house.

Some of the fairytale adaptations are particularly ingenious: The Princess and the Frog is given a modern twist to mock society’s predilection for reality television — it’s knowing and clever without being too moralistic. The Bluebeard adaptation is a curious inclusion, since it’s unlikely to ring familiar to most people, but it’s so supremely creepy and dark that it stands out as one of the play’s most memorable moments. Plus, some of the female characters that get short shrift in the original versions of these stories are now empowered 21st-century types. (But only some. Others are firmly rooted in a permanently shallow state.)

The ragtag group of musicians that follows the action of each vignette make for a great addition to Grimm Tales. The band is composed of animals casually referred to as Puss, Buns, Cock, and Ass (though not credited as such in the program), and it’s this sly combination of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that glides over little ones’ heads and right into the heart of the dirty 12-year-old inside us all.

That lack of finesse sometimes extends to Grimm Tales’ unsubtle social commentary, which needs more refinement so that the play feels less like a PSA. Set in a war-torn Enchanted Woods, the peasants are starving while the King feasts. The King has also paved over nature, reared a shallow and shrill daughter, and boasts a Southern accent. And the band’s politics, while funny, segues into a ‘Don’t Do Worms’ (which is to say, drugs) campaign that feels a bit tired.

Grimm Tales is an eventful walk in the woods, made far more interesting by its myriad moments of magic and malice — a welcome end to the summer theatre season. 

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