ADAPTING CINDERELLA ... But Why?
Glass Mind Theatre’s Adapting Cinderella begins not once upon a time but with an intriguing “pre-show” sequence set in a present-day subway station. As the audience files into the theater, a guitarist (Justin Lawson Isett) strums his instrument over the sounds of passing trains. A young woman (Sarah Ford Gorman) in flannel and a skullcap soon joins him; she whispers in his ear, he changes the accompaniment, and she belts out a few songs. A custodian (Francis Cabatac) and a homeless man (Alexander Scally) trickle on, swaying a bit to the music. Gradually the rest of the company fills the stage—Elizabeth Galuardi is a student, Sarah Weissman is a beggar, Cori Dioquino (according to the program) is a “dreamer”—and the show officially starts.
It all makes for quietly compelling people-watching, though I’m not sure what it has to do with the tale of Cinderella (notwithstanding the love-themed music, including “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” from the Disney film). To a large extent that’s the problem with what follows. We briefly meet each subway rider; we experience several versions of the Cinderella story; occasionally we sense parallels. But there is little indication of why this particular tale is being retold—why should it matter, to those onstage as well as in the audience? Ultimately, director Andrew Peters and the Glass Mind ensemble—who collaborated on this original text—provide no point-of-view through which to arrange the diverse fragments.
(Spoiler Alert: This paragraph and the next two reveal plot points.) A writer named Gus (Peter Blaine) is late to a meeting; he intends to pitch a fresh retelling of Cinderella, one that explores her inner life and struggles, but he has missed his train. As he waits, he remembers a version he learned as a child, and we are in ancient China for the story of Yeh Shen, a beautiful orphan who befriends a magic fish that grants her a water-colored gown and a pair of golden slippers. Yeh Shen (Cori Dioquino) has neither inner life nor agency—she never even speaks—yet she is delivered from her wicked stepmother (Siobhan Beckett) and sisters (Rachel Reckling and Ashlyn Thompson) and wins her prince.
We return to the subway station. Gus wonders why we never hear the stepsisters’ stories or learn their hearts’ desires, and the scene shifts to Egypt, land of the original Cinderella: a slave named Rhodopis (Elizabeth Galuardi), whose “rosy cheeks” and “golden hair” make her the envy of her fellow slaves (Reckling and Thompson again, along with Dioquino). Despite Gus’s musings, the resentful slaves—this version’s stepsisters—are just as wicked and dimensionless as any of their descendents, and Rhodopis too parlays a lovely exterior and mild bearing into a happily ever after.
We return to the subway station, where Gus declares himself done with waiting around for his own prince to come. “Fuck the slipper, lose the shoe, and find yourself,” he says, then applies this philosophy by asking out the guitarist, whose name is Eric, and who earlier had spoken wistfully about his own failures in love. But one man’s action is another man’s reaction, and the very thing that Gus rejects—waiting passively for his heart’s desire—is what defines Eric. Gus’s reward for his choice is a lunch date; Eric’s reward for the opposite choice is the same. Is the irony intentional? Or evidence that the logic of Adapting Cinderella was not fully considered?
Without a cohesive point-of-view, the show must rise and fall on its individual segments—the alternating monologues and retellings of the Cinderella story. Unfortunately, these segments seem under-rehearsed. Much of each tale is communicated through gesture and Sarah Ford Gorman’s choreography, but the performers are not always in sync, and they make tentative entrances and exits through the curtains that bound Peters’ set, which is frequently underlit. I can’t help but wonder if Peters, who also serves as lighting designer, wore too many hats for this production.
I also found myself wondering if masks would have helped meld the moving parts into a more unified whole. After all, stories such as Cinderella reappear across cultures because they speak to universal fears and longings. Cinderella and her prince are not “real” people any more than the evil step-relatives—they are archetypes, which do not translate easily into facial expressions of flesh and blood. Watching the Glass Mind ensemble, I was always aware that performers in contemporary America were impersonating ancient Chinese peasants and Egyptian monarchs. The few scenes into which masks are incorporated—a falcon head for the god Horus; transparent fabrics for Yeh Shen’s fish—are easier to lose oneself in.
Thus it is no surprise that individual moments tend to work better than group ones, or that moments in the subway work best of all. In addition to the early chemistry between Isett’s guitarist and Gorman’s singer, strong impressions are made late by Scally’s freestyling homeless man and Cabatac’s custodian, whose final words are Adapting Cinderella’s one true revelation. Watching Scally dance his ass off, Cabatac mutters, “That’s not me.” Gus wonders at his timidity, and Cabatac responds with an amazing speech, as heartfelt and profoundly simple as others in the show are strained with the effort to be insightful.
Most of the design elements are sharp. Composer Quinn S. creates an engaging, rhythmic underscore, and sound designer Andrew Porter seamlessly mixes in a variety of effects. Emily Slaughter’s costumes are well suited to each time and place. Properties designer Bianca Gigli supplies possibly my favorite prop in years—an oversized fish skeleton like a wind chime. Death—whether human or animal—never fails to fire the imaginations of storytellers. The mysteries and beauties of life prove more elusive.
Adapting Cinderella is playing at the Load of Fun Theatre, located at 120 W. North Avenue in Baltimore. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 P.M. and Sundays at 2 P.M., through March 25th. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $8 for artists, students, and seniors; they can be purchased at http://www.glassmindtheatre.com/season-2/cinderella/.
Photographs by Britt Olsen-Ecker