Life's anxieties find natural avatars in demons and monsters. Given physical form onstage, they help us cope, making those anxieties feel more manageable. In fairyland, the stakes are clear, the rules are simple, and the people are easy to understand. More than any other recent foray into fantasy, Berkeley Rep's The Wild Bride marries the magic of fairy tales with the magic of theater. The company's work is, as always, distinguished by its budget. It's easier to be magical when you have the resources to build a projection screen that live bodies can walk through, or, in this production, to write your own songs and build your own puppets. But the chief source of the company's success is the dramatic imagination of director and adaptor Emma Rice, whose stage is an inviting fantastical landscape. Inspired as it is by a Grimm's fairy tale, the plot of The Wild Bride isn't tricky. A sweet but hapless father (Stuart Goodwin) accidentally sells his daughter to the devil (Stuart McLoughlin), but over the course of her life, she wields her pure spirit like a force field and deflects Satan's advances. Repugnant as McLoughlin makes his demon — hulking around in his union suit, running his hand over unsuspecting female flesh, he is the archetypal lech — there's never any real question that good will prevail in this story. Rice imbues the show with magic. When the devil asks the father to chop off his daughter's hands — they are so clean the devil can't touch them — Rice creates the effect not with a clumsy fake wrist stump or a spurting of fake blood but with something much more elegant: a screeching sound effect, a sudden shift to otherworldly purple and orange lights, and, most strikingly, having the actress dip her hands into two buckets of red paint. Equally magical are the performers themselves. Three actresses (Audrey Brisson, Patrycja Kujawska, Eva Magyar) each take a turn playing the girl/woman. The transitions to new performers herald new epochs in the character's life. Each has talents that Rice reveals at key moments: Kujawska plays a wild violin; Magyar operates puppets with subtlety enough to capture the gently twitching movements of a fawn. But the real surprise of the production is Brisson. Diminutive in stature but with impossibly wide eyes, she is perfectly cast to play the girl stage of the heroine's life, especially with her Cirque du Soleil training, with which she creates playful acrobatics that look almost monkey-like in their ease.
Tuesdays-Sundays; Tuesdays-Sundays. Starts: Dec. 6. Continues through Jan. 22, 2011