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'Wild Bride' at the Berkeley Rep: Serious Enchantment

Posted: 12/14/11 04:49 PM ET

BY LEO STUZIN
BERKELEY -- Enchantment is a state usually reserved for the very young, and prompted by encounters with experiences new and magical. Carrying adults to that exalted realm, despite all our inevitable encounters with deception and disillusionment, is a far tougher task.

It's the task that a small British troupe called Kneehigh Theatre set for itself in transforming a little known tale by the Brothers Grimm to the stage, under the title "The Wild Bride." And it succeeded beyond the wildest hopes of this theatergoer and, I suspect, the hopes of just about everyone who packed Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre for their recent opening.

The story is definitely not the source of enchantment. It's a simple variation on the Faust legend, in which a poor father makes a deal with the devil, then discovers the horrendous price he and his daughter have to pay. The Grimm version goes by several titles, among them "The Girl Without Hands" and "The Handless Maiden"; from the moment the devil reveals his demands until sudden turnabout that brings a rapturous conclusion, it traces one very grim ride.

But adapter/director Emma Rice and her cast of six have transformed that well-worn plot into something utterly magical, brimming with wit and invention, through the brilliant use of music, movement, dance, song, dialogue and direct address. Some of that spoken narrative is even delivered in rhymed verse, and it doesn't sound cornball.

Using gospel and bluegrass tunes as well as costumes and speech patterns, Rice moved the middle European story to the USA, presumably somewhere in hillbilly country in the 1930s. But, since she was dealing with fantasy, that locale isn't set in concrete: Prince Charming, or whatever we might call the rescuer of the play's maiden-in-distress, springs to her temporary rescue as a leaping, kilted Scot, sparkling with giddiness and glee, and his nearby home seems to be a castle. And some of the music carries melancholy echoes of Budapest.

That deal with Old Scratch goes like this: In answer to the poverty-driven anguish of the father, the devil offers to trade wealth for whatever he can find behind the house. Since dear old dad -- none of the characters have names -- thinks he has nothing to lose other than an apple tree, he readily accepts. What he doesn't know is that his daughter was back there also.

But the devil's efforts to collect his bounty meet with unforeseen obstacles. The girl is too pure for the likes of him, a fact emphasized by an appropriate quotation from Scripture. So he insists on torments that will drag her to his level. When soaking her in mud fails, and when her hands drive him away -- an event punctuated by heaven-sent lightning -- he insists that father chop off her hands. Reluctantly, with rage and anguish, he accedes.

Many more twists and reversals take place before a poignant and immensely powerful affirmation of the powers of love and perseverance close the drama, but the play's enchantment flows from its methods, not its message.

Five of Kneehigh's six performers unfold the story through a display of multiple talents that's as striking as any we are every likely to encounter. Their ability to move and dance with lightness, athleticism and grace is especially wonderful; their vocal skills bring spirit and passion to the songs that range from the spiritual "Dem Bones" to the original and operatic, and their characterizations are perfect.

Three women share the role of the victimized daughter: Audrey Brisson as The Girl, the youngster who inspires the devil's lust; Patrycja Kuwajska as The Wild, who flees into the forest to escape him, then survives for seven years before her rescue by the love-smitten "Scottish" prince; and Éva Magyar, as The Woman, who becomes the prince's bride before being forced by devilish malice to endure seven more years in the wilderness.

Each is distinct, each projects the right elements of an evolving personality, each is sympathetic and vulnerable, yet strong.

Stuart Goodwin doubles as The Father and The Prince, and Stuart McLaughlin romps with vitality and whimsy through the wry cruelty of The Devil. Both are thoroughly engaging, and McLaughlin reminds us that bad guys do have the most fun on stage.

I didn't keep track of how many instruments each plays, but they run from country guitar, banjo, string bass and drums to Gypsy violin, all expertly rendered. Musician Ian Ross is the ensemble's sixth performer, stationed at stage right to offer another level of instrumental accompaniment.

Technically, the show's scenic, lighting and sound effects are spare and at times sublime, as in the scene when a tree filled with pears descends to offer sustenance to the desperate young woman. The pears are lightbulbs; how she captures one, despite the lack of hands, is a triumph of theatrical ingenuity. It inspires laughs, and unvoiceable cheers.

Theatrical storytelling rarely gets better, brighter or more inventive than the the entire package of effort that goes into this astonishing import.

Due to audience and critical reception, the theater has added 23 performances to its schedule. "The Wild Bride" will now run through Jan. 22 at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., near Shattuck. For ticket details, see www.berkeleyrep.org.