A bunch of kids in a basement playing dress-up.
The Disney sucked out of the fairy tale.
Dozen of worlds and one child’s imagination.
Weaving short fairy tales into a compelling narrative, Mary Zimmerman’s “The Secret in the Wings” transports viewers on a voyage into the murky underbelly of human impulses, through unexpected lands of ogres and princes, and into a charming conclusion in the riveting world of classic fairy tales.
Despite the fanciful theatrical language, “Secret in the Wings” confronts the complex fears of childhood with striking immediacy. The first scene in particular offers a jolt. We start with a thunderstorm, darkness and loud noises fill our child on stage with fear. Then to top it off, we see parents tell their young daughter (the splendid Leah McGowan) that she is to be left alone with a neighbor. She points out that he’s a monster with a tail. They laugh and leave.
And then the sweaty, lumbering fellow (played by the splendidly oafish Ben Usatinsky) appears — replete with actual tail — ambling down a long staircase into the kid’s nightmares and her reality. In the kid’s eyes, the neighbor is indeed a monster — albeit one who likes to tell tales. He spends the night spooking the kid at the same time he’s entertaining her with an interlocking series of stories. It’s at once sweet and scary, silly and poignant.
Told from a child’s point of view, “The Secret in the Wings” weaves together several fairy tales. Zimmerman intertwines the narratives so each tale is left at the climactic point of disaster — only to be later resolved.
In the first story, the wives of three princes are banished by a jealous and angry nursemaid, who blinds them and sets them atop a mountain with no food. Starving, they soon start eating their children for survival. In another, a queen is resurrected by her loving husband who, rather than rewarding him for bringing her back to life, takes to the arms of another man.
“The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh” has made a deal with her suitors, a group of gold-digging conventional entertainers, to make her laugh, but are all beheaded in ceaseless procession for her lack of amusement. Their beheadings, a visual gag with cones over their heads and large rubber balls in their laps, are hilarious.
There’s even a hopscotching chorus of girls to chant the grim plot of “Allerleirah,” the King’s daughter, who is the image of her dead mother and is courted by a father who somehow cannot realize that – life is not like that.
“Silent for Seven Years” is played out as a long pantomime, almost balletic in complexity. In the climax, seven children, who have been transformed into swans, fly desperately to their sister, who will restore them to their proper forms. Onstage we see a circle of actors in furious concentration, each frantically flapping a tie to create the sound of flying, and each in individual passionate artistry.
And so, on it goes with each of the tales leading us deeper “into the woods,” if I can borrow an expression, but not without a little humor, and even a few great songs to help light the way.
The players, nameless, faceless, and interchangeable, are not identified by specific character names. Each one, strong veteran actors all, delightfully convincing, seems to disappear within the ensemble, nimble and graceful in their pantomime, dialogue, and song. Without a moment’s notice, they change characters and the fast pace challenges the audience to keep up with each story.
“The Secret in the Wings” opened last night and closes tomorrow, so see it soon!
Saturday, April 30 at 7pm
Sunday, May 1 at 1pm
Buy tickets at the door or online https://gofan.co/app/school/WI19435