A winking version of `Rapunzel' opens

March 13, 2008 11:27:06 AM PDT
As the voluptuous, long-haired star of "Rapunzel," Edith Tankus is a sight in her olive green sweater and printed dress, whether calling out for "Liberta" from her tower on stage, or dashing about the center aisle, a sprig of rosemary in hand.

Fairy tales these days are rarely told without a wink, and the Kneehigh Theatre's celebration of the imprisoned maiden and her sky-high braid at the New Victory Theater does an especially clever job of modernizing - and restoring - the old classic made famous by the Brothers Grimm.

Playwright Annie Siddons explains in the program notes that she had been so turned off by the "Barbiefication" and "sanitized tedium" of "Rapunzel" and other fairy tales that she sought out stories in their earliest versions, discovering a missing dash of "va va voom" in old Italian tellings from the 17th century.

Rapunzel's wild times begin in infancy when her peasant father abandons her in the garden of herbalist Mother Gothel (played in drag by Charlie Barnecut). "What's this?" Mother Gothel exclaims upon seeing the baby, "A miracle! Am I growing people now, too?" A splendid childhood of hugs and herbs is shattered when the little girl becomes a woman and her terrified parent banishes her to a tower (a red swing in this version), for her own good, of course.

With nothing to do except read books and cry for her freedom, Rapunzel becomes truly rattled when a mandolin-strumming prince, Patrizio (Pieter Lawman), grabs a hold of the heroine's locks and wins her heart, at least after persuading her to ignore the book that insists "Romantic love is a myth designed to perpetuate the economic status quo."

Family battles follow, from the covetous Mother Gothel and her vigilant pair of scissors, to the prince's power-mad sibling, Paolo (again, Charlie Barnecut), scheming against his "repellent milksop of a brother." But a royal wedding is ensured, where Rapunzel hands out seeds for the kingdom's gardens and a feast of slaughtered pig is promised.

Nobody acts like a grown-up in this story, fitting for a set that suggests a fairy tale nursery: a mobile of vines of rosemary and tarragon hang from the ceiling, while characters run about on slatted wooden platforms below. The costumes could have been assembled from a rummage sale: aviator glasses and flight suits, pastel shirts and pants as bright as a stack of building blocks.

Toward the back of the stage, a small combo keeps the beat with cool jazz and folk stomps, or silvery guitar chords that ascend and descend with the tides of Rapunzel's rising-lowering hair.

"Rapunzel" is billed as appropriate for 7-year-olds and up, but it's a little heavy on the "va va voom." The average first grader might be puzzled or frightened by murder, eye gouging, head-butting, kissing, a speech on the perils of inflation and Rapunzel's laments from on high, whether, "That's not love! That's sadism," or, more subtly, "I want more loving! Come back Patrizio! Let's kiss again, and then take me away to your land where the olives grow."

Directed and adapted by Emma Rice, "Rapunzel" runs at the New Victory through March 23.