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Emily Ackerman stars in Kissing the Witch

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000
Irish writer Emma Donoghue's 1997 book Kissing the Witch, subtitled "Old Tales in New Skins," is a collection of reworked fairy tales in some rather tired feminist lesbian trappings. In tale after tale (13 in all), men are batterers, lunatics, fops, rapists, or users. Women who want men are competitive, cruel, backstabbing, needy, foolish, and mean; only those women who either spend their lives alone or better yet, find a female lover, enjoy any chance of happiness. (The opening piece is "The Tale of the Shoe," in which an unnamed Cinderella figure chucks over the prince for her fairy godmother. Things don't improve much as the book goes on.) The tales are held together daisy-chain style, with a peripheral character in one story becoming the narrator of the next, but this device and the order of the tales feels rather pointless. Donoghue's sometimes beautiful and sensual prose ("He was as strange to me as satin to sackcloth, feathers to lead, a heron to a herring") offers scant compensation for her dreary dogma.

However, in her adaptation of the book for the stage, a small alchemy occurs. The cant and didacticism are still there, but in reshaping the stories into a play, Donoghue has had to whittle and collapse the narratives from 13 to five, and she's imposed a better structure on her work. Three witches begin and end each act, spinning the tales, taking up the different roles. We're no longer being told random stories -- the witches are instead narrating their own lives. And Donoghue, with the help of a great production team, occasionally captures sparks of real fairy tale magic; her one-note tune becomes a song.

J. B. Wilson's set begins the spell. Formed of ripped burlap, ragged twine, frayed netting, and crooked branches, splashed with color and hidden metallic sparklings, backed by draped parachute silk of blue and purple harlequin diamonds painted with stars and set with twinkling lights, it represents an enchanted heath where both wizards and royalty reside. Then the witches (Emily Ackerman, Cambron Williamson, and Margaret Schenck) tell us how the people fear and need them, and the tales begin.

Costumer Todd Roehrman clothes the actresses in long, pale green dresses, stained with earthy swatches. As witches, they wear coverings of leather or heavy fabric. In their various other roles, they don coarsely woven aprons or tunics of velvet and gauze. A king wears a crown of twigs in one tale; a queen bears one of moss and feathers in another. Sound designer and composer David Molina provides echoey gurgles and murmurings for the witches' cave, music of celesta and flute for a romantic waltz, and eerie clicking noises overlaid with wind chimes to signify a wheel spinning thread. All in all, the design team (including Robert Ted Anderson's lighting sorcery) is a playwright's dream.

Director Kent Nicholson (Swimming in the Shallows) conducts his witches and one man (Mark Phillips, variously as father, prince, king, and merchant) through the space expertly. There are some missed moments, though. In "The Tale of the Rose," Rose (Ackerman) tells her beast captor (Williamson) she's lonely. The beast responds, "I've never been anything but lonely," and our hearts should break. But Williamson says the line too quickly, and there's no resonance. In "The Tale of the Handkerchief," as the princess who's found bliss tending geese, Ackerman has a weird focus and sways too much, so her performance verges on the comical. She'd be better if she were still, so we could see she's finally at peace. Schenck's tone is sometimes too sarcastic and too contemporary as a witch, but she fills her other roles completely. Phillips' characters are often merely stylized sketches, but he delineates them sharply. He's terrific, whether being foolish or romantic or ponderous, or all three.

At other times, too much of Donoghue's narrative torrent still survives. In "The Tale of a Voice," when a girl (Ackerman) agrees with a witch (Williamson) to trade her voice for the attention of a rich merchant she's infatuated with, her thoughts are played on tape. Ackerman is so good at conveying first her bliss and then her sorrow as her gentle lover (Phillips at his most romantic) becomes unfaithful, that the taped words are completely unnecessary. Her face says everything. And when the girl learns the error of her desires, we're subjected to an obvious lecture on how a woman shouldn't change herself to attract a man. But afterwards the witch tells her story, the girl offers her a kiss, and there's magic afoot.

The witches tell us at the beginning, "When a boy changes his life, it's called adventure. When a girl changes her life, it's called a fairy tale." On the surface that's true, but so what? Yes, it's easy to condemn the passive, pallid princesses offered in the banal retellings we get of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and other stories of their ilk, but real fairy tales, in their beautiful simplicity, offer deep thrillings of passion, death, transformation, retribution, revenge, and most of all, love. An artist needs to see the adventure in fairy tales and the magic in adventure. Donoghue is only just beginning to realize the capabilities of theatrical enchantment.

About The Author

Joe Mader


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