Thumb through the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen, and one of the first things you'll notice is how unsuitable many of them are for bedtime reading. Perrault lets the wolf gobble up Little Red Riding Hood—and granny too. Andersen's Little Mermaid fails to win the affections of the prince and throws herself back into the sea. As for the Grimms, their stories are an almost unrelenting parade of deadpan horrors—one child gets her hands chopped off, another is buried alive, and still another winds up in a stew that's greedily lapped up by his own unwitting father. Sweet dreams, kids!
Even when the plots aren't appalling, there's a fundamentally unsettling aspect to the best fairy tales. Like bad dreams, they tap into our anxieties about the unmanageable and possibly malevolent forces threatening our safe little worlds. Just as you feared, the stories say, there are witches and wolves in the woods surrounding the castle or the cottage. The main characters may get to live happily ever after, but first they'll have to overcome some things that aren't very nice.
On the surface, Emily Schwartz's new musical, The Dead Prince, looks like a fairy tale in this unsentimental, pre-Disney mold. It deals with death, difficult choices, and the difference between reality and illusion. But on the surface is where these matters stay, both in Schwartz's script and in Paul S. Holmquist's staging for Strange Tree Group. It's as if the heavy themes are invoked to lend a sense of depth to what the show actually is: 95 minutes of cute.
The tale is narrated by a band of aggressively jolly ruffians who live in an enchanted forest that seems to be perpetually bathed in bluish moonlight. When necessary, these friendly rogues serve as supporting characters, operate taxidermic puppets representing woodland creatures (designed by Noah Ginex), strum banjos, and make winking asides to the audience. At first they make a show of treating us like interlopers on their turf, but then they change their minds for some reason and decide to tell us a story.
It centers on Princess Sara (a wide-eyed Ann Sonneville) and her quest to find her one true love. Traveling with her lifelong friend, Will (Zachary Sigelko), a lute-plucking court musician, Sara has tracked down one magic mirror after another, each telling her that she will never meet her soul mate because he's already died. The last such mirror in the kingdom contains a wicked wizard named Maldorf, played with enthusiastic contempt by Michael Thomas Downey, who tells Sara that he can bring her dead Prince Charming back to life—provided she agrees to free him from his reflective prison by breaking the glass.
Sara promises to do that once she's on the arm of the reanimated corpse of her dreams, and the three of them—maid, minstrel, and mirror—head off for the tomb. Along the way, they're joined by a handsome thief (Dan Behrendt) and a fiery, ax-wielding lass (Kate Nawrocki), neither of whom contribute much to the story.
The revived prince, on the other hand, is far and away the best thing about the show, thanks entirely to Scott Cupper's hilarious performance. Speaking in a quivering, faraway voice and flopping around as if still not quite entirely resurrected, Cupper makes a precise and touchingly doleful physical comedian; it's especially fun to watch him try to play Will's lute. As he struggles to remember who he is and to fill the role expected of him, he also supplies the play's only moments of pathos—which come as a welcome reprieve from the arch whimsy on display everywhere else.
The story doesn't end with the prince's return to the living. Turns out Death—disguised as an old crone—resents being robbed of those she's claimed. To get revenge, she kills the thief, the lass, and every last one of the jolly ruffians, telling Sara that she can bring them back only by sacrificing her one true love. Though anguished, Sarah agrees and, lo and behold, Will drops dead on the spot. Not the prince but the trusty musician was Sara's true love all along, which just goes to show you what comes of trusting magic mirrors.
For some reason, Sara's realization and regret bring Will back to life, too. I'd call it fairy-tale logic—akin to the kiss that wakes up Sleeping Beauty—except that Sara herself argues that all her problems have come from believing in enchantments and perfect princes instead of the "more beautiful" real world right in front of her. This incoherent conclusion feels like an insult both to reality and to fairy tales. Her cutesy morbid streak notwithstanding, Schwartz is the one who comes across as afraid of depicting true danger, irreversible suffering, or anything approaching a genuine emotion. The Brothers Grimm were never this facile.