In an age when "Disneyfication" has worked its way into popular discourse, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual origins of many favorite fairy tales.
The Brothers Grimm, Jacob (Travis Stuebing) and Wilhelm (Zane Harris), are responsible for many well known children’s stories. Among them, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, and many others.
In Happily Ever After, Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s distorted circus show soon to make an appearance at the New York International Fringe Festival, the aptly named Grimm Brothers are recast in a young boy’s (director and author Cody Lucas) dream as demented ringmasters controlling the grisly fates of their characters for the "enjoyment of their audience member," Lucas’ Jack.
To understand why the authors of some of history’s most beloved fairly tales can be depicted with such grotesque glee, we have to go back to "Disneyfication". Or in other words, homogenization.
Originally, happy endings were much more subjective, and sometimes non-existent. The Grimm Brothers tales may have stood the test of time, but, in many cases, they’ve been significantly revised to remove much of the violence, murder, incest, and general depravity of the characters.
Apparently children were much more into horror back in the day.
In Sundown’s take, Jack is suffering from insomnia after his own twisted experience and as he retreats into the dreamland, his confronted by the brothers and their freak show of characters.
First up is Rumpel (Robert Linder). In this, Rupelstiltskin is a hunch-backed, torture-masked beast, abused and tormented by the brothers, forced to sing his haunting song. Linder’s intensely physical performance is jaw dropping. He completely disappears into the disfigured monster leaving only a frightening spectacle for the agape audience.
Following that, Rapunzel (Tashina Richardson) and the Prince (Nick Ross) perform a tightrope act with a jolting conclusion. Richardson tells the story of her pain through her face so fully that it’s impossible not to feel it right along with her. She gives a powerful and heartbreaking performance.
Finally, Beauty (Olivia Emile) and Hansel (Aaron Sanchez) perform a sad, superbly choreographed waltz, which serves as a perfect lead in to discussing the technical achievements of this piece.
George Ferrie handles the roles of assistant director and choreographer, and excels. His choreography is intricate and lovely, and aptly communicates the forlorn emotions of the characters. There’s something very haunting about it.
Contributing an original soundtrack, played live on stage by the performers, Patrick Emile, through the use of instruments like a toy piano and xylophone, also paints an eerie, child-like tone across the entirety of the performance with discordant melodies and the mishmash of instruments. Emile is just as important to this performance as the people on stage.
However, everything comes down to the performances of Stuebing and Harris as the brothers. Each has developed his own take on the respective characters. These differences between the two help establish not just a unique dynamic between the brothers and their performers, but between each other as well.
They also strike perfectly the delicate balance between being the maniacal torturers of the characters, and comedic in much of their delivery.
Happily Ever After would never be classified as a comedy, but there are comedic elements, typically in the brothers’ utter glee at demoralizing, and Lucas and the cast have found a good flow between the two. As if they understand that, given some of the show’s heavy subject matter, without a few light moments, the audience would be mortified at the final product. As it stands, the show may be more disturbing than not, but it also adequately works some sharp satire on the nature of fairy tales, and much of the credit goes to Stuebing and Harris. They are wonderfully sadistic.
Next month, Sundown will take this show to the prestigious FringeNYC, and it’s easy to see why it was accepted. This young Denton theater is doing important work and Happily Ever After is just another step towards establishing themselves as a theatrical powerhouse for years to come.
Happily Ever After, indeed.