If this theatrical season has had any major trend, it's the fairy tale. First, Marin Theatre Company gave us Bellwether, in which a fantastical underworld was used to explore a suburban kidnapping. Then, the Cutting Ball presented Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande, about a princess so delicate she dies from a scratch. And last month, No Nude Men premiered three experimental fairy tales, all of which mined the form to reveal feminist concerns.
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. A British import, the play is a product of England's Kneehigh Theatre Company, last seen in the Bay Area at A.C.T. with an acclaimed production of Brief Encounter.
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 not the hermetically sealed world of so much contemporary drama, but rather 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. To evoke a generous pear tree, one that bends down to give away its fruit "for free," glowing light bulbs descend from the ceiling into waiting hands. Or, 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: from childhood to living in the wild to marrying a Scottish prince (also played by Goodwin, with enough comic stylings to upstage his kilt).
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. She doesn't actually speak until the end of her first scene, but when she does finally open her mouth, an incongruous singing voice comes out: This beguilingly small woman has the mature, polished but edgy voice of a rock star. With McLoughlin's impossibly high tenor, and McLoughlin and Ian Ross taking up a panoply of instruments — banjo, upright bass, drums, guitar, accordion — Stu Barker's catchy, blues-inspired soundtrack does much of the storytelling and mood-setting in its own right.
If the second act isn't as strong or as magical as the first — the realities of war intrude on the fantasy — the production more than sustains interest with its underlying narrative of feminist triumph over adversity. Until we no longer need magic to defeat dirty old men, Kneehigh offers us a magical canvas for us to pin our hopes.