BWW Review: Stray Dog's 'Robber Bridegroom' Is A Hoot!
Stray Dog Theatre has opened that strange, hilarious, almost surrealistic hoot of a show, The Robber Bridegroom. It's a 1975 musical by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night of Ballyhoo) with music by Robert Waldman. It was adapted from a novella by Eudora Welty who based it on a Grimms brothers fairy tale. Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone starred in the 1975 production by John Houseman's Acting Company.
The play is set in Mississippi in 1795. In those early days there was little law in the remoter sections of the Union, and the woods are full of brigands and cut-throats. One particularly notorious outlaw is Jamie Lockhart, known as "the Bandit of the Woods". Jamie conceals his identity by staining his face with berries. He's a wildly independent soul who would rather steal than earn, rather rape than seduce. (His berry-juice disguise is the slightest streak on his cheek-bones, but if Superman can conceal his identity by donning a pair of glasses as Clark Kent, we'll happily suspend our disbelief at the Bandit's disguise.)
There's a beautiful maiden, a rich father, a wicked step-mother, and a pair of rough and unwashed bad-guys, not to mention some poor white-trash and a talking raven. And throughout there are rich subliminal references to fairy-tale motifs. All of this is backed by a superb string band.
The Bandit of the Woods assumes the guise of a gentleman to visit the rich man's plantation. As the Bandit, he meets the maiden in the woods and--well things happen. But neither knows the other's true identity. Later the maiden, Rosamund, assumes the guise of an idiot to avoid the attention of Jamie-the-gentleman because she loves his alter-ego. But Papa wants to marry his daughter to gentleman-Jamie. Much fun ensues, as the libidinous evil step-mother plots, the lovers tryst, and fate works in peculiar twists to bring the bride and her groom together.
Phil Leveling and Dawn Schmid play the lovers with bright energy. Jeffrey Wright and Sarah Gene Dowling play the father and the step-mother--he with innocence, she with sledge-hammer power and a decided lack of innocence.
There's a wacky device used with the two rough, feckless backwoods villains, Big and Little Harp. They are brothers, and one has somehow lost his body! That's right, he's merely a talking head in a box. Logan Willmore and Kevin O'Brien work well as this pair. Other players include Bryce Miller as Goat, a quarter-wit redneck, and Christen Ringhausen as Goat's sister, Arie. Susie Lawrence is delightfully avian as the talking raven. I was startled when she instantly transmogrified into a member of the ensemble--the black raven costume becoming just the lining of her square-dance skirt.
Justin Been is one of our very best directors of musicals. Here he also designed the set--various levels, simple and rustic, with crates and barrels and rough beams. It's all used very theatrically--doors, for instance, are mere fragments held by chorus members, with fitting swings and squeaks and slams.
There is much dance, and it varies from standard hoe-down swing-your-partner to really lovely, strange, dreamy almost balletic choral movement. I know that Stray Dog works their performers very hard in rehearsal, and this shows in the fine polish and precision of all the dance--and in the quite beautiful choral singing.
If there is a star of this show it is the blue-grass string band, led by Music Director Jennifer Buchheit on piano and featuring the virtuosa Mallory Golden on fiddle. It's quite wonderful--perhaps the best I've ever heard. And these six splendid musicians, playing almost constantly throughout the evening, have every note down by memory!
The show is a strange blend of happily corny Grand-Ole-Opry music and humor with darker dangerous and erotic elements (the very soul of The Brothers Grimm). In this production the corny humor is emphasized, the darker elements subdued. There is just too much "twang" to allow much mystery or romance--especially in the voice of Mr. Leveling's Robber.
There's a nude scene. The lovely maiden has every stitch of her clothing stolen by the bandit--and then is left there, quite naked. Playwright Alfred Uhry said of this scene in the Kline/Lupone production: "Once Patti was nude, she was in no hurry whatsoever to get off the stage." In the Stray Dog production Miss Schmid plays this scene in a "nude suit" or body-stocking. This is quite the correct choice in a production such as this, which stresses the rustic comedy. (And she is still very lovely indeed!)
Director Been, in his program notes, remarks that "there are elements in the show that may seem inappropriate by modern standards." A recent New York revival "reworked several moments to bring it more in line with modern notions. We have worked to match the intention of that production."
It is never a service to a play to bend it into the popular social attitudes of the last fifteen minutes. How is theater to help us understand what it is to be human if we are never allowed to see that once upon a time folks held attitudes that were different from ours? (Read 1984 about altering history.) Perhaps we should post at every box-office a trigger warning: "If your moral or social sensitivities are too fragile, DO NOT ENTER!"
Anyway, Stray Dog's current production is a great deal of fun. Don't miss it. The Robber Bridegroom plays through August 15.