Theater Review: “Grimm” but Entertaining

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn
To a Nightingale, John Keats, 1819

GRIMM: The Brothers’ Tales Remixed & Re-imagined . . . Written by Gregory Maguire, Kristen Greenidge, Melinda Lopez, Marcus Gardley, Lydia R. Diamond, John Kuntz, and John ADEkoje. Directed by Summer L. Williams and Shawn LaCount. Staged by Company One at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA, through August 14.

Becca A. Lewis (Red) and Raymond J. Ramirez (Victor) in Company One's Grimm

Becca A. Lewis (Red) and Raymond J. Ramirez (Victor) in Company One's Grimm

Reviewed By Bill Marx

The nineteenth-century fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm go far beyond the forlorn, though you wouldn’t know it from the bowdlerized, sanitized, and moralized versions offered by the likes of Walt Disney and others, who think bedtime stories should offer lessons in good citizenship.

Violent, dark, and at times downright absurd, the Teutonic magic realism of the Brothers Grimm is peculiarly modern in its embrace of anarchistic violence, random manipulation of the fantastic for the sake of revenge and sexual conquest, and use of fantastical effects for shock and/or inspirational value. The fairy tales are also inherently dramatic—their archetypal conflicts between good and evil compressed into short spells for rapt listening audiences of all ages.

Company One had the enterprising idea of asking seven accomplished, local playwrights to take up the challenge of remixing or re-imagining a selection of the stories. The resulting world premiere production suffers from the inevitable unevenness of multiple author exercises (though only one of the Grimm reboots really overstays its welcome), but the varied round-up of playlets and sketches offer plenty of vaudevillesque humor and imagination.

The writers approach the material in a spirit of mischievous fun, which is understandable, but that generally leaves the nastier, more unruly elements in the stories untouched—the overall impression left by GRIMM is of artists playfully teasing an old friend. A more radical deconstruction of the standard and/or obscure fables would have been fascinating, but the Company One show succeeds as light and enjoyable summer entertainment.

Keith Mascoll (Cry Baby Jones)

Keith Mascoll (Cry Baby Jones)

GRIMM also has the merit of spotlighting Company One’s commitment to new plays and local dramatists— serving as a convenient “sampler” of the work of John Kuntz, Melinda Lopez, Lydia R. Diamond, and others. The personal touch of having the playwrights, via taped comments, introduce his or her play underlines the company’s intent to connect directly with the audience. Directors Summer L. Williams and Shawn LaCount emphasize the point-blank in their staging, which focuses on keeping the proceedings direct and efficient—not much subtlety here, but the job gets done.

The hardworking Company One cast of 12 race though their GRIMM tasks with skill and enthusiasm, though more modulation would be helpful; At times the comic turns wallow in SNL overkill, threatening to slather the same clownish patina over all the pieces.

The seven playlets break down into four essential tones:

Sentimental: The Seven Stage a Comeback by Gregory Maguire proffers an intriguing premise: the Seven Dwarfs awaken from their slumber and decide for various reasons—unrequited love, abandonment issues, envy, homicidal anger—to track down the rescued Snow White. The glass coffin is brought along as some sort of creepy ritual offering. Maguire generates some wry amusement out of the dwarfs’ chatter and internal debates about their quest to the bright side but not enough to do justice to the idea, which is dunked into mush at the end.

Cry Baby Jones, based on “The Frog King,” comes off as an urban “fractured fairy tale” that chronicles the coming-of-age of a literal big baby who sells healing talcum power out of his home, a dumpster in Plastic City. Dramatist John ADEoje garners some laughs as he fires off at a melange of targets (ham acting, TV news, the Peter Pan syndrome), but the piece nosedives into the silly and juvenile well before its predictably cuddly end.

Victoria Marsh as Hazel, the take-no-prisoners museum guide

Victoria Marsh as Hazel, the take-no-prisoners museum guide

Satiric: Half Handsome & Regrettable is an ultra-broad, comic update of “Hansel and Gretel” set in a German museum that has the fabled Gingerbread House on display. Two rich American brats challenge the imperious German guide and all Hell breaks loose. Playwright Marcus Gardley has lots of fun sending up horror films, snooty cell phone wielding kids, and the cult of innocence. Victoria Marsh’s dictatorial guide threatens her adolescent charges with hilarious panache.

Dramatist Lydia R. Diamond’s giggly The White Bride and the Black Bride features three actresses reading the off-the-beaten-track Grimm tale “The White Bride & The Black One.” Along the way they toss pop culture references and deflating sarcastic barbs at the yarn’s hideous racial politics, surreal narrative, and over-the-top violence. It is a one-joke sketch, but handled with sweet and sardonic aplomb.

Earnest: Thankgiving, Kristen Greenidge’s soap opera-ish response to the Brothers Grimm tale “Clever Else,” is a vivid talkathon featuring three New England housewives, schoolmates and friends, waiting to pick up their kids. Nothing new here—the usual regrets for taking the sedate domestic way out, with the downward mobility of one of the wives (her janitor husband was caught stealing and is out of a job) serving as the panicked focal point—the vision of living in a lighthouse stands as a dreamy rebuke to suburban servitude.

Playwright Melinda Lopez supplies the most serious, least gag-filled play of the evening, taking three different looks at “Stories about Snakes” in Stories About Snakes.The spiritual significance of the serpent, played with insinuating cunning by Lonnie McAdoo, morphs through each of the stories: He’s an innocent seducer in one, a victimized dupe aiding female liberation in another, and finally takes on the traditional role of purveyor of evil. It’s a provocative view of fairy tales as invitations for multiple-choice reinvention.

Diabolical: Red by John Kuntz is the kinkiest of the plays making it, ironically, the closest to the sordid spirit of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. “Little Red Cap” inspires a sadomasochistic game played between girl and hunter, with both superb performers, Raymond J. Ramirez and Becca A. Lewis, reveling in the theatrical salaciousness of it all. The topsy-turvy role changing feels a bit by the numbers, but the play adds the necessary note of sick, illicit pleasure to the evening.

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