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The Secret in The Wings

Equal Parts Naughty and Nice

With the ushering-in of the Disney era nearly a century ago, the saccharine doppelgänger of the traditional fairy tale reared its golden head. Like an innocuous houseguest to its sinister innkeeper, these bowdlerized counterparts proved themselves directionless when it came to navigating the darker corridors of the psyche's abode. The variations, which remain true to their originals, always retain the nastiness of the cautionary parable -- full of cannibalism, tempestuous suitors, girls who fall by the wayside, and wicked stepsisters whose feet are chopped off. When reading Grimms' Fairy Tales as a child, I always got the nagging feeling that a happy ending was provisional. Indeed, the motto of such stories does not seem to be so much "Every tale has a happy ending" as it is "Know your enemy." The old wives who spun such yarns meant business.

With The Secret in the Wings, now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, writer/director Mary Zimmerman presents a captivating rendition of lesser known European fairy tales that take viewers on a hypnotic voyage into the murky underbelly of human impulses. Slicing up these stories and enmeshing them in a framework that quickly dissolves and makes the border between storyteller and tale indistinct, Zimmerman opts for an arrangement that makes the entire stage glow with prescience; and every character promises a bizarre finale.

A flash of lightning illuminates a dimly lit room, and we are introduced to a married couple gearing up for a night at the opera. Before they go, they tell their young daughter Heidi that their neighbor, Mr. Donahue, a paunchy old churl with a wifebeater and cigarette balefully dangling from his lips, is going to baby-sit her. Heidi squeals with anxiety -- after all, everyone knows that Mr. Donahue is an ogre. (True to form, he saunters into the house with his long tail whomping on the floorboards.) The parents write off her plaints as childish invention and promptly make their exit.

After a few shoddy one-liners, it becomes clear that Heidi is a sort of Beauty to Mr. Donahue's Beast. With nary an introduction, Mr. Donahue presents an inane question to the child: "Heidi, will you marry me?" When she responds with an emphatic no, he proceeds to tell her a story, as if he might be able to seduce the young girl with strange inventions. The suggested connection between pedophilia and fairy tales, often sexual in nature, is an unsettling overture. It is this interaction that will foment an explosion of stories woven into one another, an intertextual dance that will always return to Mr. Donahue's sinister question.

The manner in which Zimmerman and her cast enact the stories Mr. Donahue reads from his book is nearly seamless. The first tale is about three kings' sons who go off to war, leaving their queens behind to suffer the envy of an evil nursemaid. The queens are eventually driven out of the kingdom and made to subsist on an arid mountain, where they each give birth to a son. Two of the queens are driven mad by hunger and eat their children. The story is expertly punctuated by choreography, synched dialogue, and sonorous songs that convey the ancient idiom of desperation. Indeed, the play is spattered with age-old horrors that appear repeatedly in mythology and folklore: cannibalism, beheadings, live burials, incest, children chopped up and replaced with changelings, gruesome metamorphoses that stem from a thoughtless curse. It is as if Zimmerman replaced saccharine conventions with snatches of macabre story so that only the horrors remain. In cleaving the stories from their cartoonish versions, she has maintained the essential meaning of such tales. Her narrative decisions are also ingenious; Zimmerman twists the framework of the ogre's reading when she places the story of the king who wished to marry his own daughter in the context of a children's rhyme. That the gossipy children act as mouthpieces to such a monstrous desire is chilling and deeply effective.

Zimmerman is non-linear in her relation of the stories, which are abruptly cut off before being resolved. But we are hit with a salvo of whispered assurances that promise us "It's not over yet." The effect of cutting off a story only to return to it later gives the entire play a greater cumulative effect. To paraphrase Zimmerman, the outcome is much like being drawn deeper into a black forest, enticed by the promise of something magical lying in wait.

The remarkable thing about Zimmerman's play is that the continuous weaving of stories is hypnotic in and of itself, as if the actors are trapped in the enchantment of the charade and must keep going. The tale-within-a-tale setup is more than a bit bemusing, though. The problem is not so much that the fantasy blurs into the framework, or that the storyteller is never clearly just Mr. Donahue; rather, it's the fact that the story of Mr. Donahue and Heidi is never aptly developed, at least not to the extent that putting the tales in the mouths of either of these characters is a meaningful decision. Indeed, Heidi and Mr. Donahue are an inconsequential backdrop. When their roles abruptly shift towards the end of the play, their ultimate purpose is puzzling; this becoming the only aspect of the narrative in which Zimmerman falters.

The scene in which Heidi and her friends are excitedly exchanging snippets of a fairy tale, as if it were something that happened to a girl they once knew, is tautly laced with intimations of sex. Perhaps, instead of remanding both Heidi and Mr. Donahue to conventional -- and even silly -- roles, Zimmerman could have chosen, more wisely, to overlay her fantasy with the dangers of burgeoning sexuality.

Overall, The Secret in the Wings is a mesmerizing fare of choral enchantment, with an ensemble of actors that effectively hits the nuances of fairy tale awfulness. The set is multi-level, which distributes the dramatic movement across the stage into darker corners, especially when actors are murmuring or caterwauling from the wings. The rustic stage, with its heavy trap doors and muted lighting, is antiquated and all-purpose -- acting as dungeon, throne room, and mausoleum. Zimmerman is both knowing and witty in her direction; with a delivery that is both elegant and bizarre, her tales take us deeper into the maelstrom of desire and fantasy than any children's story ever could.