Last Saturday I saw The Wild Bride at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The play had interested me because I knew it was a fairy tale retelling, and featured blue grass music, but probably the thing that convinced me most was the lettering of the title. Just from the looks of it, I could tell it would be a play I would enjoy. For the most part I did enjoy it. While the story and message left me wanting, I am still thinking about the imagery. It provided great fodder for some sketchbook experiments. The show ran January 26 to February 17 and was directed by Emma Rice.
The play is a riff on the Grimm tale “The Girl Without Hands.” It seemed to be loosely set in the Depression-Era South, or at least that was the cue I got from the first character to appear, the Devil, who spoke in a Southern accent and was dressed in a suit and fedora. I appreciated the set for its rustic-ness. In center stage was a rocking chair, and a large tree that offered variations of levels with ladders and platforms. Dirt was central to the story, and the stage was littered with leaves and got muddied up during the course of the play. High up in the tree there was a round mirror that reflected the audience, and at one point in the play, a disco ball. One of my favorite set elements were these light bulbs on strings that moved up and down. They represented pears.
The story involves a Father and his daughter, at the start, and they are poor. The Devil strikes a deal with the father: he will give him money and fancy clothes, essentially, in exchange for whatever is in his backyard. The Father agrees, and then it is revealed that his daughter had been in the backyard behind the tree. After some meta exchanges with the audience, the father realizes his mistake and has to stand by as the Devil molests his daughter. But the daughter is too “pure” and can not be touched by the Devil, so he orders her to be dirtied up. After she is covered with mud, the Devil still can not have his way with her because she has been crying on her hands. So he orders the father to chop off her hands… and unfortunately, he does.
I went to the play knowing that she would have her hands severed, and was curious as to how they would approach this with theater magic. I applaud the production most because it made me entirely uncomfortable and ill at ease with this part. I had to remind myself “this is just a play, this is not really happening!” But I was squirming in my seat, and that’s what so rewarding about seeing theater. You feel much more involved with actions that are occurring on stage. All in all, I liked the choices made by the production. The use of paint was pretty effective. First the daughter’s hands were dipped in white when she had been crying, and after the Father brought down his axe, her hands were dipped in red. Later they would be bundled up, and other times she would be wearing gloves over her fists. The heroine, also, was played by three different actresses.
The story continues with the girl being banished to live on her own with no hands, and the transition to her being played by the second actress, who portrays her as “the wild.” You see her roaming around the leaf-strewn stage, getting muddied up again and wearing a crown of twigs and birds nests. She is fed from the pears on strings, and I was most convinced of her handlessness while she was trying to grapple with light bulb pears. The pear tree is owned by a Prince, who prances on stage wearing a kilt. He is the same actor who played the Father, an interesting choice, though to be honest, it creeped me out. The father already seemed to have too physical a relationship as seen previously with the young daughter. It seemed that they wanted to make a comment on father and husband essentially inhabiting the same role for the daughter.
The prince and the Wild are married, and he gives her new hands fashioned by his blacksmith. While these Edward Scissorhands-contraptions provided some comedic moments, they did seem to cast the heroine into the role of a freak. I appreciated the way the Prince’s mother was treated, as a large portrait with holes through which an actress put her hands. Later the actress stepped out from behind the painting, which diminished its effect. She had to rip out the eyes and tongue of a twig-deer puppet.
The last actress portrays the heroine in a maternal role, after she has a baby and the kingdom is at war, and she must survive the wilderness again. I saw the play with my friend Nikki, and we both agreed that the conclusion of the play was not the strongest. It seemed that the heroine suffered a while longer, and after seven years she was able to grow her hands back. In a long-awaited confrontation with the Devil, she scares him off with a few fighting stances. She is reunited with her husband, they are a happy family with their leaf-and-twig child puppet. I am still trying to figure out how I like this ending… something does not feel right.
Perhaps what bothered me most about the play was the lack of lines by the heroine. She only utters a few sentences at the very end, and these are obvious lines: “My hands have grown back, etc.” And yet, all the real wisdom of the play comes from the mouths of the men, the guys who screw up the heroine’s life. I perhaps would have liked it if the heroine had something pithy to say now and then. Or perhaps I am outgrowing the fairy tale trope that the heroine must suffer through silence.