The Red Shoes
Based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
A strange thing happened as I walked towards the entrance of St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo for a recent Sunday matinee performance of The Red Shoes (through December 12): the door swung open and a man in nothing but tighty-whities and a sweat-stained white undershirt stepped out into the chilly afternoon brandishing a rectangular leather suitcase. He looked around, before spinning back towards the door. As I held it open for him he gave me a brief but very intense look from wide eyes made to look especially deep-set with dark circles of makeup. Minutes later, reaching my seat, I shuffled past another, slightly older man with shaved head and all-white undies carrying a case, though he was more willing to smile. Neither spoke, and as the house lights began very slowly to dim two more actors dressed thusly joined them going down the steps towards the stage, on either side of which another pair was already sitting surrounded by instruments—harp, accordion, trombone, guitar, kazoo and more.
The four travelers—three men and one woman—set down their cases, fetch large metal basins, and proceed to wash and dry their feet in various teetering and self-conscious poses. This funny cleansing ritual has the audience rapt. Wordless minutes pass until the actors, unsure what to do with their basins full of dirty water, look up at the audience and begin to step forward, threatening a Sea World-caliber splash for the front rows. As they prepare for the final heave the evening's hostess, Lydia (Giles King in drag, more Tim Curry than Dame Edna), arrives and calls them to order.
Like in last year's Brief Encounter, currently playing on Broadway, Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre tends toward multi-layered narratives that incorporate new and pre-existing texts. Here, a company of mime-like actors, nearly literal blank canvases, are picked to play out Hans Christian Andersen's grim 1845 fairy tale The Red Shoes. "There once was a girl," Lydia begins, and the four players turn around and look up expectantly towards the narrator perched above them—Bill Mitchell's playground swing set of a stage is superb. She points to the female actor, Patrycja Kujawska, who's presented with one of the leather suitcases, labeled "The Girl," and her cast-mates dress her in its contents.
As new characters enter the fairy tale the underwear-clad actors present themselves again until no more labeled suitcases remain. All three flip through roles—the shoemaker, the preacher, his wife, the soldier, and so on—as the sweet orphaned girl turns to a harried outcast increasingly obsessed by her unceasing scarlet shoes. Live music from the pair flanking the stage and Lydia on clarinet is occasionally supplanted by recordings, a sonic analogy to the movements between the different fictions being performed: five actors playing a vaudevillian ensemble who are in turn putting on a classic fairy tale. A pair of funny interludes in which mimed magic tricks backfire seems intended to reiterate the overlapping of narratives, but takes away from their dynamic interconnectedness. These may be The Red Shoes' only major missteps.
Emma Rice notes the influence of music hall performances in her director's note, and that sensibility shows in the purposefully rushed and hurried dynamism of successive scenes. The actors shoo each other off-stage to change costumes behind hastily drawn partitions as Lydia looks on, often with an exasperated expression, as though they've been out there tripping over each other. But The Red Shoes is a very good fit, neither precious or infantilizing in its portrayal of a classic fairy tale, nor clumsy or excessive in its adaptation. The actors speak very little, and even Lydia keeps quiet for long sections, while the ensemble's poised movements—even the increasingly manic Kujawska keeps control of her unspooling character—and clown-ish facial expressions move the dance along to its last hellish steps. Cast, creative and the two-man orchestra are all on point, laced tight for a visually and musically eloquent portrayal of a moral fable that, in its 165th year, seems more spry and sure-footed than ever.
(photo credit: Pavel Antonov)