The Brothers Grimm’s collection of Germanic fairy tales, in its unadulterated form, is not exactly soothing bedtime fodder for the little crumb-crushers. Human existence in Grimm Land is generally erratic and violent. Wicked queens burn to death in bathtubs, unwanted children are abandoned and left for dead in the woods, and wolves devour poor old grandmothers. Along the way, society watered down the creepy Deutschland stories into more tender, saccharine and moralistic products. The Children’s Theatre’s latest production, a wondrous Grimmish hodgepodge called “Once Upon a Forest,” does not resurrect the unpleasant gore of the original works but stays true to their gleefully anarchic tone.
Dutch director Moniek Merkx revitalizes the dreadfully familiar yarns by combining roughly fifteen tales into a semi-cohesive linear narrative. The central theme is one of youngsters naming and confronting their deepest, darkest fears in order to conquer and move past them. Each of the seven child characters sets out on an individual quest for adventure in a magical forest that ultimately leads to a group battle against a fire-breathing hydra.
The play begins and ends with the mantra of “Where there is a key, there must be a lock. Where there is a lock, there must be a secret.” Aside from that recurring structure, the Dadaist scenes fuse into each other in a manner more suited to a long-form-improvisational-sketch-comedy show than a light play designed for children. On Friday night, more than a few youngsters loudly complained to their oblivious parents that they had trouble following the somewhat-complex plot. The Children’s Theatre Company has often strived to appeal to parents as well as children and might have inadvertently crossed the line between complexity and befuddlement this time around.
Finicky audience issues aside, the acting is spot on and the sets are nothing less than dazzling, as per usual. Brave New Workshop regular Katy McEwen’s wicked turn as the cackling Wicked Stepmother is positively delicious. The standout player here is the maniacally energetic Reed Sigmund, who plays an adorable lonely hedgehog named Hans. Sigmund’s blustery comic style echoes the “fatty fall down” method honed to perfection in classic Chris Farley bits.
A fair amount of the cast are dressed much like the furry woodland creatures that starred in the forgettable 1993 animated film “Once Upon A Forest,” but the similarities end there. The script is peppered with musical interludes that consist of cutting and pasting lines of giggly children’s sing-a-longs with ’60s pop standards much like an a capella version of an audio collage.
Snow White bumps her head constantly on the roof of a house designed for dwarves as a mournful hedgehog wanders past with a herd of skateboarding pigs in tow. We never get to see the fabled monster, but we believe that it has been properly slain because the breathless mini-Marco Polos tell the story so believably, complete with dozens of sound effects.
There is also an egalitarian feel to the production, as each player takes on at least four parts and helps with the numerous costume changes needed for such an ambitious undertaking. The “fourth wall” is knocked down constantly, as the cast mocks theatrical formality by crackling bubble wrap for the fake bonfire and banging on gigantic artificial trees with drumsticks to make the wooded areas feel a bit spookier.
Do not expect to see royalty dine on teenager’s hearts here or pre-pubescent slaves being tarred and feathered on stage. This is the Children’s Theatre, after all. However, if you are in the mood for a brief dose of fresh faced, mildly contained chaos, then “Once Upon a Forest” is the one to bank your night out on, even if you do not have a winsome tot to accompany you.
“Once Upon a Forest” plays through March 8 at The Children’s Theatre Company, (612) 874-0400.
Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]