Directed by Andrew Peters
OK, OK: Disney is evil. Not only because the entertainment giant creates highly commercial fantasias, but also because it has a monolithic ability to appropriate folkloric tales and turn them into tidy, moralistic infotainment. The problem is that what makes fairy tales such tempting targets for critical derision is also what makes them potent: A simplistic tale that moves from hardship to happiness is a seductive dream, as alluring to the heart as it is suspect to the brain. And fairy-tale spinners, like political campaign strategists, know simplicity is the shortest route from the brain to the heart.
With Adapting Cinderella, an original production that explores the often cliché baggage that comes with the “Cinderella story,” Glass Mind Theatre tries to walk this tightrope tethering the trite to the effective. The Glass Mind ensemble and production team spiral through a mélange of staging ideas, through which the cast juggles multiple plotlines and characters. The play evolved out of four months of collaborative workshopping, incorporating dance, imagery, found and original texts, and other storytelling forms. It’s an ambitious remix approach that results in a production that’s tonally scattershot and occasionally opaque, but nevertheless intermittently laced with scenes of quiet beauty and poignancy.
This antic tone may be intentional. The play opens with a pair of subway buskers (guitarist Justin Lawson Isett and singer Sarah Ford Gorman) singing songs as the remainder of the cast emerge as commuters, itinerants, and workers waiting for their train. Gus (Peter Blaine), one of those creative types who has an agent and a pitch meeting that he’s running late for, begins a verbal riff on the once-upon-a-time intro to fairy tales such as Cinderella and all the tropes that come with it: fairy godmothers, evil stepmothers and sisters, happily ever after, etc. Blaine treats his lines like a monologue, though he happens to be joined by a cast that can dramatically re-enact his thoughts, which specifically gravitate to two older Cinderella-type tales: the Chinese saga of Yeh Shen (Cori Dioquino), the put-upon step-daughter to Jin (Siobhan Beckett) who obliges her own daughters (Ashlyn Thompson and Rachel Reckling); and the ancient Greek story of Rhodopis (Elizabeth Galuardi), a peasant girl enslaved by Egyptians who becomes the Pharaoh’s (Isett again) object of affection.
In both cases, Adapting attempts to re-examine the Cinderella cliché by looking at it through the lens of other cultures, and director Andrew Peters throws every dramatic strategy at his disposal into the effort. Some events take place as shadow plays behind scrims. Choreographed dance sequences segue between scenes. Gus becomes both storyteller and voice-over narrator to the proceedings, commenting upon the action as much as chronicling it. Many sequences unfold without dialogue, with Andrew Porter’s sound design and director Peters’ lighting setup supplying tone and mood.
It’s a bricolage approach that is its own sort of textual convention. Novelist Kathy Acker turned to the same creative appropriation when re-examining the literary canon, and her Great Expectations and Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream examine those stories in light of the sexual and identity politics that emerged from various branches of art and the academy in the 1970s and 1980s. What seems to be missing from Adapting is that sort of clarity of agency behind the vision. While the play, and Gus, eventually arrive at a sort of argumentative conclusion, it’s of the self-actualizing empowerment kind that feels as facile as the happily-ever-after that the production is meant to confront.
But perhaps that’s entirely the point. The viral power of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign resides in its profound commonness. It doesn’t preach political idealism or the moral high ground but rather seeks that instinctual impulse that can get blunted in the face of everyday ignorance and intolerance: Survive. Adapting Cinderella’s chameleon-like shifts prevent it from achieving that intense directness, but the piece arises from a similar commitment to unabashed sincerity.
Which may be why Adapting Cinderella earns its best moments when it’s most unfussy. The entire cast, especially Dioquino and Gorman, does better when not chained by dialogue, and Isett and Thompson in particular have the emotive command of facial expression and body gesture of silent actors. One of the best scenes is from the Yeh Shen sequence in which Jin clinically describes how to clean and prepare a fish for cooking, and the trio of actors (Blaine, Galuardi, and Gorman) playing a fish enact the procedure. It’s a brief, uncomfortable scene that transforms rote instruction into psychological violence, which Adapting Cinderella winningly realizes with a powerful, poetic simplicity.