Shaking the Tree’s ‘Head. Hands. Feet.’: Not so grim fairy tales

There will be blood in Portland theater’s “Tales of Dismemberment” but not all the body parts add up.

As you enter the theater, actors clad in neutral grey courteously greet you, lead you to a basin, and solemnly help you wash your hands. The splashing water provides the only sound in the hushed, neutral-colored space dominated by pale bluish greys — the better to contrast with the blood that will flow in Shaking the Tree theatre’s annual Halloweenish horror show.

Actually, the gore isn’t portrayed realistically but symbolically; Head. Hands. Feet. is by no means a fright fest. In fact, the first half consists of fairy tales, although anyone’s who’s read non-Victorian-sanitized ancient tales knows how really, ah, grim and gory they can be.

They can also seem pretty backward from a 21st century perspective, often punishing characters — particularly females — who transgress social norms. Accordingly, all three devised stories — and the adaptation of a classic Greek play that occupies the show’s second half — to some degree sanitize their models to make them more progressive/feminist/modern and, well, Portland than the originals.

Shaking the Tree Theatre's Head.Hands.Feet.

Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Head.Hands.Feet.

While that updated sensibility may make the stories seem more suitable to today’s audiences, it sometimes also makes them a shade too comfortable, at the expense of the dark reality they caution us about — not too different, ultimately and ironically, than what the Victorians did to those dark stories. It’s almost like thinking the world is like what we saw at the Democratic convention, and just ignoring that other one — the real horror show of last summer. At times, the apparent attempts to bring out more contemporary perspectives on these ancient tales actually undermine the modern moral stance these adaptations are trying to advance.

Nevertheless, as with any production involving the Portland theater power trio of imaginative director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and irresistible actors Beth Thompson and Matthew Kerrigan, you should see Head. Hands. Feet. — though not to be terrified, but to have your terrors cleansed.

The fractured fairy tales in the show’s first half eschew dialogue for narration, supplied by cast members who smoothly switch between playing a role (or even a prop!) and recounting the story, using gestures, wordless vocalizations and other mime elements more effectively than most actors can with actual words.

The first entry, “Blue Beard,” is the second of three recent incarnations of the tale to appear on local stages. This one sticks a little closer to the most familiar versions of the tale than the symbolist play Bela Bartok scored in his opera Bluebeard’s Castle. Unlike that version, which the Oregon Symphony performed earlier this month, or any other, Van Der Merwe’s clever staging leans toward humor, which the actors astutely provide through comic nonverbal exaggeration. If a story about a serial killer can be fun, this is it, especially since the perpetrator, engagingly played by Kerrigan more as buffoon than homicidal maniac, gets his comeuppance when all the females join together to thwart his murderous intentions, and somehow live happily ever after.

The second devised tale, the Brothers Grimm’s “The Handless Maiden,” also allows its repressed female victim to live happily ever after. A wandering parable about the devil’s deceit in a Faustian bargain, it’s a metaphor for a child so abused by her father that she loses both her freedom (hands) and ability to trust. The story wants to show her finding a safe place where she can learn to trust again, and take her fate into her own hands. For his part, her King Charming must sacrifice years and his kingly pleasures to find the “real” maiden.

Instead of showing her actual process of regaining her sense of self, though, this version portrays the maiden (poignantly played by Nikki Weaver) as entirely subject to the whims of the (male) devil and her father, only to be rescued first by some tree people and then the King, whom she immediately trusts despite having been misled by Old Nick that the king wants her mutilated or worse. Here’s an instance where a tale (whether in the original or in this recasting) that strives to be pro-female winds up disempowering its title character. It’s hard to feel much satisfaction in the salvation of a passive protagonist.

Beth Thompson sports dangerous footwear in "The Red Shoes."

Beth Thompson sports dangerous footwear in “The Red Shoes.”

The third and most powerful segment, by contrast, shows how to effectively update an ancient tale with modern values by transforming the classic version of H.C. Anderson’s “The Red Shoes” from a warning about a girl’s vanity, addiction and compulsion into a critique of social repression. The sight of the girl’s gaudy footwear causes a conservative, judgmental fundamentalist Southern congregation to confront their own hidden, socially disapproved desires, with predictable consequences.

In the original, a deus ex machina saves the now-chastened girl, whisking her soul up to heaven — which is pretty much what happens, equally unconvincingly, in the three other stories in this show. But this segment’s Margaret Atwood-meets-Rod Serling interpretation offers no such happy ending. The briefly liberated female (Thomson), and the natural desires she represents, are horrifically repressed. Worse, she appears even to accept blame for her behavior by offering her feet for sacrifice; she loves Big Brother. While you’d think making the woman more victim rather than a victor here — the opposite of what happens at the end of the other stories — would send an anti-feminist message, ultimately, the tragic ending for our heroine makes a better, truer story. It’s more progressive and dramatically effective to honestly depict the ugly consequences of repressive reality than to pretend the good guys will inevitably overcome it.

Iphigenia Invisible

If Van Der Merwe had added a couple more such folk tales and skipped the intermission, Head. Hands. Feet. might have made a more cohesive production. Instead, after we returned from the scrumptious cake and wine at intermission, everything changes: the tone, storytelling style, even the kind of source material. The shift from airy fairy tale atmosphere to weightier, conventionally staged Greek drama, with dialogue replacing narration, makes for a longer, heavier night than you might expect from the first half or STT’s previous Halloween shows.

The attempt to update ancient sensibility, though, doesn’t change. HHF’s Iphigenia in Aulis resembles its treatment of the “Handless Maiden.” Euripedes’s version of the story (there are many, both preceding and following the ancient Greek playwright’s) shows how it takes a murderous monster like Agamemnon to make a tough choice for the good of society. Should he stay with his wife Clytemnestra and bubbly, barely menarcheal daughter Iphigenia, disband the army and let the treacherous Helen stay with Paris at Troy where she’s absconded? Or instead sacrifice his own child so that the gods will waft wind in his warships’ sails? Iphigenia urges her father to take her life if it will prevent the family and the Greeks from being massacred. She’s doomed anyway, but the drama really lies in her decision to offer up her own life for her people. Her sacrifice is the right choice.

Edna O’Brien’s adaptation, written during yet another war in the Middle East, turns turns a play about noble self sacrifice into an anti war tragedy about patriarchal society valorizing dreams of martial glory above the true love of wife and family. Agamemnon prioritizes his brother’s pride and family’s wounded honor over his own daughter’s life. Her sacrifice is the wrong choice.

That certainly rings true of today’s endless wars, maybe all wars. And plenty of modern day adaptations of classics purposely present a more enlightened, or at least more contemporary twist on old stories. But if you’re going to update an ancient tale to make a more modern point, you still have to do it in a way that’s emotionally truthful. And this interpretation so contradicts the events of the ancient tale that it rings false. Its portrayal of Clytemnestra as devoted and loving wife, shocked that her husband would consider killing his daughter, runs completely counter to the feelings a woman would have for the brute who had earlier murdered her mate, ripped her just-born child from her breast, dashed its brains out on the ground, and forced her into a non consensual marriage.

Van Der Merwe follows O’Brien’s putatively admirable attempt to make Agamemnon a more dramatically and emotionally complex character. But her and Chris Harder’s sympathetically anguished portrayal of Agamemnon as a tormented dad facing a tough choice between a loving wife and daughter on one hand, and vainglorious war and ego on the other, makes his final decision implausible. He’s too Portland nice to kill his daughter.

These are compassionate 21st century characters caught in a brutal BCE world — but they’re compelled by the necessities of the ancient plot (rather than their own apparent motivations) to make choices that those modern characters never could.

And by cutting — dismembering — so many of Iphigenia’s lines, the adaptation robs her of agency in her own fate, turning her into just one of a giggly gaggle of teenagers, a figure as passive as the Handless Maiden — another victim of paternal betrayal, another title character who’s less protagonist than subject, in another story ostensibly about a woman’s triumph that winds up being more about a man’s choices.

Matthew Kerrigan as an oracle in 'Iphigenia.'

Matthew Kerrigan as an oracle in ‘Iphigenia.’

Euripedes was no warmonger; just read The Trojan Women. But what’s made his drama so lasting is his unwillingness to flinch from war’s true, bloody consequences and causes. We 21st century denizens may blanch at Agamemnon’s choice, but as Iphigenia herself understands, it’s what he is. In Euripedes, the tragedy is partly Agamemnon’s, that he had to choose between his daughter and his duty, but it’s also Iphigenia’s, who has to choose between her survival and her country’s. And maybe it’s really ours, that we have to do what’s demanded under the fist of such monsters to save us from even worse fates. That’s what’s really scary.

This version also tries to protect us from the true horror of war by stitching on an ending that provides neither emotional satisfaction nor catharsis. (Many believe that Euripedes’ original sort-of-happy ending — another whisk off to a happy afterlife — was added after his death, or at best meant ironically.) Looking forward to later events in this timeline recounted in other Greek stories but not recounted in Iphigenia in Aulis, it purports to show the dire consequences of choosing war over love. Agamemnon, who returns home from the Trojan War in triumph only to be murdered by his vengeful wife, did a terrible thing, it implies, but in the end, he gets his just desserts.

Actually, the red chocolate cake available at intermission and after the show would have been plenty. How much starker — and anti-war — it would have been to end it before that diluting coda: Iphigenia screams, the father who just murdered her carries a vessel holding her blood; as the lights slowly fade, the bloodthirsty soldiers’ cheers echo as the warships’ sails ripple on the rising winds that will carry them forth to more slaughter.

Dodging the Darkness

It’s hard to fault Shaking the Tree’s attempt to recast old stories for today’s audiences, or its generosity in HHF by giving audiences essentially two shows for the price of one. But I imagine most would prefer a tighter, more satisfying no intermission show to an overstuffed endurance test. Still, at least with STT, you don’t have to worry about the feast being undercooked. As usual, the superb direction, design and acting are worth the ticket. The excellent cast features names familiar from other stages like Weaver and Jamie M. Rea, who turn in solid work, but it’s STT veterans Kerrigan and Thompson who really grasp Van Der Merwe’s slightly skewed, darkly suggestive, non-naturalistic, somewhat larger than life style. The fine acting, especially Kerrigan’s brief, frightening turn as an oracle in Iphigenia, alone made that segment worth seeing.

So does the creative team’s outstanding work throughout, from Rhiza Architecture & Design’s spare set’s gorgeous, two story high folded paper backdrop, minimal props like the wooden polygons that become entirely different settings when rearranged between each segment, nuanced sound (Annalise Albright Woods) and lighting (Trevor Sargent) design, Jenny Ampersand’s original costumes like Blue Beard’s goofy beard, the congregation’s eye makeup in “Red Shoes.” Using only minimal means, those and many other similarly imaginative touches, from those opening ablutions forward, transport us through a series of mythical worlds that leave just the right amount of detail for our imaginations to fill in. The production succeeds so well that it took me a week to figure out why I nevertheless left the theater emotionally unsatisfied. Too many of the stories just didn’t feel true. And yet the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about them demonstrates the power of Shaking the Tree’s production.

In a way, though, that opening hand washing, and those brightly lit, neutral colors, symbolize this production’s cleaning up of some bloody messes that maybe should have remained a little darker, a little bloodier, a little messier. Some things should scare us.

Head. Hands. Feet. ~Tales of Dismemberment continues through Nov. 5 at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St. Tickets online and at 503.235.0635.

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