BWW Review: Spooky Fairy Tales (and a Greek Tragedy) Come to Life in HEAD. HANDS. FEET. at Shaking the Tree
If you're looking for Portland's most creative theatre, Shaking the Tree productions are always in the running. And the current show is no exception. Just in time for Halloween, director Samantha Van Der Merwe brings us HEAD. HANDS. FEET., which consists of three devised works based on the fairy tales Bluebeard, The Handless Maiden, and The Red Shoes, plus an adaptation of Euripides' Iphigenia.
If you aren't familiar with these pieces, they all center on gruesome acts of violence -- someone loses a head, someone a pair of hands, someone a pair of feet, and someone a life. As fairy tales, they also all hold a lesson of sorts (depending on the telling). In this case, they all make a point about how women ought (or ought not) to behave. Think of it as Halloween with a healthy dose of feminism.
I enjoyed the pieces in the reverse order. I very much liked Edna O'Brien's adaptation of Iphigenia, which significantly remodels the original, including changing the ending. It's a piece about war, but mostly about the fallible people (mostly men) who wage war and their misguided motivations (mostly pride). The adaptation focuses on the female characters who are the unintended victims of the war, in particular, the wife, mistress, and daughters of Agamemnon, the king who's doing all of the war-waging.
My second favorite was The Red Shoes, which brings the story of a girl condemned to dance forever to the modern day, placing it in a southern revival-style church. It uses the fairy tale as a platform to explore what we're hiding behind our outward selves as we go through the motions of our lives.
Bluebeard and The Handless Maiden were truer to the original stories. They were also placed the most emphasis on visual storytelling. I think they could have been performed entirely without dialogue and you'd still understand well enough.
To create and perform these devised pieces, Samantha Van Der Merwe has assembled a strong cast, many of whom you'll recognize if you've been to any previous Shaking the Tree productions. My particular favorites were Matthew Kerrigan, who always gives his characters such fantastic physicality, and Jamie M. Rea, whose Clytemnestra (Agamemnon's wife) is a quintessential example of a strong woman living a life that is too small for her.
One of the many joys of attending a performance at Shaking the Tree is simply walking into the building to see how the space has been transformed. In this production, the set is simple, but the preparation for the show to begin is not. You're taken into the theatre one-by-one, and there's a short ritual before you take your seat. The effect is that everyone becomes unusually quiet, which sets an eerie tone before the show begins.
Overall, I recommend HEAD. HANDS. FEET. It's a good pick for this time of year. If you go, sit in one of the upper rows near the center aisle if possible -- that will afford you the best view of all of the action and keep you well out of the way of gravel dust.
HEAD. HANDS. FEET. plays through November 5. More details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Gary Norman