The Wild Swans | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Wild Swans




Griffin Theatre Company

The enchantment of a fairy tale, and especially a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, is its tensile simplicity: much of what's left out--subplots and subtext, motivation and (often) morality, prologues and epilogues--is gone for good reason. These would clutter the magic of the evil spells and the good deeds.

Andersen's The Wild Swans is a touching tale of a sister's sacrifice. An evil queen inflicts a curse on her trusting spouse and innocent stepchildren; she transforms 11 handsome princes into wild swans by day and humans by night and exiles their courageous sister, Elise. Seeking shelter in the woods, Elise meets her brothers in their swan manifestations, and they transport her on a reed carpet to a rock in the ocean where they seek shelter at sunset (and suddenly turn human).

The fairy Morgana appears to Elise in a dream and tells her how to break the curse: she must prove her love by plucking nettles from the rocks and sewing shirts from them; flung over the swans, they will restore their humanity. Until then she must speak to no one, though that injunction almost costs her the love of a handsome king who befriends her. Nearly burned alive as a sorceress--her silence means she can't explain her obsession with nettles--Elise is saved by her flying brothers, whom she in turn redeems from the curse. Oddly, we never learn of any punishment inflicted on her wicked stepmother or the credulous father who so easily believed that his children forsook him.

Andersen's fairy tale is radiantly clear: the only force strong enough to break the spell is Elise's devotion combined with the resourcefulness of her half-human brothers. As Andersen says of Elise, "She was too good for magic to have any power over her"--but she was not too innocent to be spared a terrible trial. Nothing could be cleaner.

And nothing could be messier than Griffin Theatre Company's ugly duckling of a play. Dragged down by Richard Barletta's glacial, drearily obvious direction, William Massolia's adaptation encumbers the story with a host of irrelevancies. Renaming the heroine Elizabeth and reducing the brothers to three, he's set the action in a gloppy futuristic neo-Dark Ages of cowled fugitives and withered witches, where beer cans are intriguing artifacts but baseball cards are still collected. He's also added half a dozen unnecessary characters, most of them male, among them the evil Prince Cimon and two unnecessary allies for the brave girl: a gruff Uncle Newton and a stupid love interest, Prince Matthew, to replace the handsome king. These virtually crowd Elizabeth and her heroic act off the stage.

Telling us far more than we need to know (and seldom only once), this lengthy, laborious, aimless script shows the princes learning from an android (delightfully played by Wendy Goeldner-Hermes), Elizabeth and Matthew reading poetry to each other, and Uncle Newton perorating endlessly on such plot distractions as a coming collision of four stars with the sun. (Supposedly the supernova will invigorate the earth--right into cinders!) We learn all about the characters' unhappy childhoods, as if putting Andersen's creations on a couch could bring them to life. Even more exasperating, the big dramatic scenes--Elizabeth's rescue, the happy reunion of brothers and sister--are described, not dramatized.

Mired in exposition and pulpy, cliched dialogue and protracted by Barletta's staging, Griffin's version trivializes the main characters, reducing them to glibly hip refugees from a sword-and-sorcerers B-movie. (The swan jokes are particularly stupid.) Andersen's once-mysterious creations are either portentously solemn or clumsily sarcastic, as when the wicked queen subtly threatens, "I'll just use my feminine wiles on him--I'll rip his throat out!" For all the special effects (stage fog, strobe lights, flash pots, and small-scale fireworks), nobody ever seems to do anything; when they talk, they do it so deliberately it's instantly tedious. If there's a quest here, there's no urgency behind it.

The 12-member cast seem stuck in their stereotypes. Jean Elliott Campbell's wicked witch mugs automatically in the Margaret Hamilton manner patented over half a century ago. Debra Schommer gives Elizabeth the kind of ingenue screaming fits that Princess Leia of Star Wars should have destroyed forever. Kevin Farrell's melodramatic Prince Cimon looks as if he might reinvent the railroad just to tie Elizabeth to the tracks.

The best work comes from the three poignant princes whose characterizations are more quiet: Rodger Kurth as the shy Louis, Kevin Holdread as the prickly Solomon, and especially Christopher Gerson as the sardonic Darius. Regrettably, like much here, these personality differences don't matter to the story: they're just more clutter. Worst of all, we still don't feel the chief charm of Andersen's story--the brothers' love for their sister and hers for them.

Griffin's unfledged Wild Swans is no more inspired technically than it is artistically. Becky Flory's set design looks like the outdoor lion den at Lincoln Park Zoo, Rebecca M. Shouse's costumes seem sunk in barbaric funk, and T.J. Gerckens's lighting design has two settings: dim and bright. I vote for dim.

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