Fairy tales are usually geared towards younger audiences. Mary Zimmerman‘s ‘Secret in the Wings’ is a marked exception featuring uncommon dreamy horror without the usual and unambiguous triumph of good over evil. Angelenos have two weeks left to see a mostly perfect small theatre adaptation of her work by Coeurage Theatre Company.
The through line is part Twilight Zone, part Beauty and the Beast blended with lesser-known works redolent of the Grimms and Hans-Christian Andersen. Neglectful parents leave their young daughter in the charge of their creepy neighbor while they head off to a party. Thereby hangs both tale and a tail since only the child can see that old Mr. Russom has one dangling off of him. He’s an ogre who repeatedly proposes marriage to her. It might all be normal in Alabama but still jars in California. Serially rebuffed, he reads to her, and his increasingly disturbing stories come to life.
And such stories of power and cruelty are both plentiful and timeless. The ones in ‘Wings’ atypically have women setting the rules, serving as both tormentors and victims while gormless men are easily led. The play has been around since the early 1990s and early reviews refer to minimalist stagings. It has since gained popularity and production value. Berkeley Rep’s 2004 presentation of the original Chicago Lookingglass show was what God might have done if He had the money. Director Joseph V. Calarco delivers the same shock and awe in a tenth of the floor space and one surmises even a smaller budget. This is no staged reading but a fully realized production, expertly set (JR Bruce), lit (Brandon Baruch), and costumed (Kumue Annabelle Asai). Pride of place goes surprisingly to the soundscape, also by Calarco – the show would be unimaginable without it. It surrounds and grabs the audience from the get-go and steers it through interwoven and suspended plots, a sonic picture frame around grim interiors and grimmer exteriors. The play’s world transcends its set and Tasheena Medina’s choreography joins with the sound to make it manifest on a tiny stage. A nine-person ensemble moves with grace, precision, and above all supreme individual and collective confidence.
Zimmerman’s story choices eerily foresee current events – a widower king lusts after his daughter (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann, Leslie Murphy), young men fight an eternal war while their families starve. She also leaves room for theatrical ‘inside baseball’. An angry young princess (the magnetic Katie Pelensky) will marry only the man who can make her laugh, all other comers to be beheaded. Her willing and unwilling suitors are tried reverse-Scheherazade through an open-mic night that, like the war, ends in the death of all the young men of her kingdom. The imperfection? The most poignant story of a faithless woman (Audrey Flegel) and her loving sap of a husband (Randolph Thompson) is set to music. Those who dislike sung theatre can instead enjoy the clever stagecraft that accompanies it. It all ties up in the end with a nice little twist but it is rightly not a full restoration. Stories reflect human society, fears, and failings. They’d have no power otherwise. The symbolic dangers may vanish at a snap but the realities they abstract do not and that horror we take away and keep with us.
The term small theatre here refers only to the size of the space at The Lankershim Arts Center. Coeurage’s ambitions are as large as Ziggurat’s were when it was producing in LA and on par with Jaime Robledo’s excellent work with the Sacred Fools. The ambitions are exceeded. With Christmas comes the usual large and small adaptations of Dickens and Bob’s Holiday Office Party, each exploring extrema of the spectrum from cloying to crass. Calarco has made a strong case for ‘Wings’ as the Halloween play for adults, chock full of the fear, ambiguity, and cruelty that grow with each passing day in the land of the free and the home of the brave. All Coeurage performances are “Pay What You Want.” Go with generosity.
The Secret in the Wings
by Mary Zimmerman
Directed by Joseph V. Calarco
Remaining performances 7-9 and 13-16 December 2017, all at 8pm
at The Historic Lankershim Arts Center
5108 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Arrive early to find street parking
All performances are “Pay What You Want”
Online ticketing via Secureforce