Monday, February 20, 2012

A TRAIL OF BREADCRUMBS TO A PRIVATE HELL - 'The Gingerbread House' at Red Tape Theatre

Grimm’s Fairy Tales are, as one would expect, pretty damn grim. Intended originally as cautionary morality stories for children, the books are jam-packed with death, violence, curses, and other ghoulish stuff that even those stern nineteenth century German parents wanted nowhere near their nurseries. The Brothers’ tales bluntly rejected that silly notion of “happily ever after” and, more often than not, delivered their characters unto the most brutal of ends.
But here in the United States, we don’t recognize Grimm’s Fairy Tales as deep crevices of ethno-centric nationalist dark matter, no – We know them as Mickey Mouse. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were all compiled in Grimm’s original collection, but today they have been pitifully banished to the pastel nexus of grossly commercialized, polyester Halloween pageantry.
But Mark Shultz’ new play, The Gingerbread House, receiving its Midwest premiere at Red Tape Theatre, returns The Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel to its origins in woodsy Germanic folklore by dropping it in the most viscerally frightening of all locales – the suburbs. The play, while overly elongated and occasionally a touch too reliant on the symbolic, is nonetheless a delightfully creepy character study that unearths larger questions of our wants, needs, and the true nature of responsibility. Red Tape Artistic Director James Palmer’s new production, which recently opened, smartly injects heighted visual style into the predominantly realist onstage action, jumbling the senses with optical unpredictability and twisted weirdness.

Gingerbread House inverts the narrative of Hansel and Gretel to focus on the parents, who begin the story by selling their children - an initially ridiculous choice that starts the play off humorously, with the first few scenes being more akin to darkly comic vignettes. As the tale progresses, however, the weighty burden of their horrific actions becomes too much for the parents, Stacey and Brian, who manifest their internal torture with workplace ambition and violent emotional explosions.
Endlessly and unapologetically strange, though this play may be, it never ceases to intrigue. Shultz finds a unique balance of nineteenth century Germany and twenty-first century America by sleekly shifting the play’s genre from dark comedy to domestic drama to psychological thriller at surprising, unexpected intervals. That simultaneously vulgar and magical tonality is certainly a challenge for any theatremaker, but Palmer and his actors have tackled it admirably, finding Chicago angst amidst the whimsical forest.

Meghan Reardon’s performance as Stacey, the whipped around, victimized mother of the sold-off children, is mostly moving and deep, particularly during her elongated telegram speeches; however, for a play centered around a couple’s mid-life crisis, Reardon’s energetic youth remains impossible to hide. She is perhaps ten years too young for this part, with her spasticness often having no discernable maternal quality. Despite the age barrier though, her performance, at its strongest, properly reflects the tragedy of loss.
As Brian, Stacey’s dictatorial husband, Mike Tepeli cultivates audience sympathy and hatred with simple, easy smiles and vicious stares. He allows his seething anger to remain in captivity until the final scenes where he lets loose without any stubborn inhibition. Brian is just a twitch short of being purely evil, but Tepeli never reduces him to a flat lined, Jafar caricature.
The arguable catalyst of this couple’s problems is Marco, a high-ranking executive with terribly sick intentions at Brian’s company. Marco unctuously coordinates the “gray-market” sale of the kids, and remains in Brian and Stacey’s life during the painful aftermath. Nicholas Combs performance as Marco is discordant among the other actors, opting for plain villainy over multifaceted humanity. Combs’ tendency is to judge his character, rather than seek an understanding of him. And given the plot’s saturation with Marco, such blatant cartoonishness is damaging.
Shultz has made a few perplexing choices that add little to his play other than exhausting length - including several scenes involving two characters, Fran (a sassy Paige Sawin) and Connor (Alex Kyger). These banal segments happen in the travel agency where Stacey works, and, aside from that setting being a slightly overbearing symbol (Sedentary Gateway to the World, yada yada), the scenes only serve to reiterate the play’s message - albeit with more cyclical language.

Red Tape’s production beautifully shows off the emerging theatrical art of projections – featuring slickly elegant imagery and video on Scott Davis’s alternatively claustrophobic and spatially expansive set. Michael Stanfill’s projections are at one with the actors – a welcome change from too many visuals incessantly stealing focus from other equally integral elements. These projections are used at varying times to affect setting or alter the tone and feel of the room to immensely strong effect. Working alongside Stanfill’s design, Joseph Fosco’s sound utilizes a pulsing, evocative auditory landscape – but while freaky and well crafted, it occasionally overpowers the actors in their more subdued moments.
Fosco has also written original music for the production. A chorus of identically dressed young girls with bright eyes and muscularly strenuous grins begins the play in song – a corrupted, bitter song that is melodically upbeat and infectious, but tempered with appalling, spiteful lyrics. The other sung music that punctuates the evening has that same contrasting quality, paying homage in yet another clever way to Gingerbread’s Grimm paternity. These songstress girls’ eerie effervescence sheds a bright light on a set that is either trapped in the final days of Fall or was long ago left for dead.
The floorboards of are overlaid with brittle, dead leaves – those crumpled, tattered leaves that unapologetically litter your garage for years and years, recalling autumns past. And although the family may transition into a more modern, fanciful dwelling later in the play, those brittle sticks and dirty brown leaves remain crawling in the foreground – a reminder of their past transgressions; a tell-tale heart.

The two act structure of The Gingerbread House seems, to me, a necessity, as the really major, hard shift from frivolity to consequence happens all at once, but I would still like to see the play streamlined – certain early scenes lengthened for clarity and latter scenes cut and truncated for firm-handed decisiveness. But as it stands, the play achieves a definite bodily revulsion – a revulsion that yes, comes from an immediate disgust of watching two parents sell their children to Albanians, but more unsettling, is the empathy that comes from our own familiarity. We have all done horrible things of different shapes and sizes, and The Gingerbread House won’t let you forget that uncomfortable fact. -Johnny Oleksinski

‘The Gingerbread House’ runs through March 3 at Red Tape Theatre.