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BWW Reviews: Imagination Stage's RUMPELSTILTSKIN is Brilliantly Executed but Script is Disturbing


RUMPELSTILTSKIN is a Grimm fairy tale. The version currently being presented at Imagination Stage, in Bethesda, Maryland, for children between the ages of five and ten, is also a grim fairy tale. It is brilliantly staged and directed (by Janet Stanford), well-acted, and visually and aurally stunning. The background music, played on-stage by violinist Anthony Hyatt, dressed as one of the story's "fair folk" (i.e., fairies), ranges from classical to selections reminiscent of Irish folk music and klezmer. Daniel Pinha's scenic design, Katie Touart's costumes, and Rob Denton's lighting provide a visual feast. The designers contrast the drab colors enveloping the fair folk and working class people with the splendid colors surrounding the royal family, and use somber lighting for darker parts of the story and sunny brilliance for happier events. Gwen Grastorf, whom the program credits as the "movement specialist," fully integrates ballet-like fairy dances with the story. Christopher Baine's sound design perfectly captures the anger of the unseen, hungry crowds and their jubilation when the king marries the miller's daughter. Rarely do children have the opportunity to see a show that so successfully introduces them to the breathtaking beauty possible in live theater.

The miller's daughter (Katherine Renee Turner) realizes that she can't spin straw into gold.

The performances, too, deserve accolades - Equity members Kathryn Kelley (Mess and the queen) and Ricardo Frederick Evans (the miller and the chancellor) convey sarcasm with facial expressions and changes in tone - something that the older children in the audience and the parents will find humorous. Katherine Renee Turner (the miller's daughter), a recent college graduate, has already appeared in films and on stage locally and internationally. I fully expect to read about Ms. Turner's Broadway debut in the near future. Equity member Matthew Pauli (Rumpelstiltskin), who performs professionally as a clown as well as an actor, moves with skill and grace, and manages to convey evil without unduly frightening the more impressionable members of the audience - a feat in light of the dark story.

The fair folk, l to r, Jason Glass, Anthony Hyatt, Kathryn Kelley,
and Katherine Renee Turner try to kidnap the miller's daughter.

In playwright Mike Kenny's interpretation, the miller's wife dies giving birth to a daughter, whom the fairies attempt to kidnap, and toss around the room in a spirited game of catch before having their plans thwarted. Several years pass, and the king dies, leaving the spoiled prince, who is still a child, to assume the throne. After he grows up and realizes that he has dissipated the kingdom's treasury on expensive parties, he hears that the miller's daughter can spin straw into gold, a rumor that the miller accidentally started. The king commands her to appear at the palace and leads her down, down, down to a dungeon in a journey reminiscent of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's final lair scene. The king locks the young woman in with the instruction to spin the room full of straw into gold by morning on pain of losing her head. She is left alone in the dungeon sure that she is about to die, when Rumpelstiltskin pops in and agrees to perform the task in exchange for her necklace, the only legacy she has from her mother. The next morning, the thrilled king leads her to an even larger room, where events repeat, with Rumpelstiltskin agreeing to perform the task in exchange for the young woman's ring. The third time, the king informs her that he will marry her if she succeeds and kill her if she doesn't. Rumpelstiltskin appears again, but this time she has nothing more to give, except the promise of a future first-born, which he eagerly accepts; for some reason, the fair folk, who love babies and plan to protect any they obtain from harm, see nothing wrong with collecting them by nefarious means. Rumpelstiltskin performs his part of the agreement, and the treasury is saved.

Rumpelstiltskin (Matthew Pauli) exacts payment
for spinning straw into gold.

For reasons explainable only by Stockholm syndrome, the miller's daughter agrees to marry the king on the condition that there will be no more spinning of straw into gold. Eventually, she gives birth to a daughter and Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect his payment. He takes pity on the new queen and tells her that he will release her from the bargain, if she can guess his name within three nights, with three guesses per night. Under the excuse that she can't decide what to name the baby, she sends messengers to all corners of the kingdom to collect all the names

Rumpelstiltskin (Matthew Pauli) exacts more payment for
saving the miller's daughter (Katherine Renee Turner).

given to male and female newborns. After failing to guess Rumpelstiltskin's name during the first two nights, she tells the king that she will leave him after the naming party because of the way he got her to marry him in the first place, and that he would soon know the other reason. The miller's daughter is rescued when Mess, her childhood caretaker, who turns out to be descended from the fair folk on her father's side, finds Rumpelstiltskin and tricks him into revealing his name. Rumpelstiltskin "departs," the miller's daughter forgives the king for imprisoning and threatening her, and everyone lives happily ever after ... except Rumpelstiltskin.

After she guesses Rumpelstiltskin's (Matthew Pauli) name,
the miller's daughter (Katherine Renee Turner) chases him away.

The writing has several humorous moments, primarily geared to the adults and to the older children in the audience. The young king's mother waxes rhapsodic about how she met his father, dropping hints that ultimately make clear that she is Cinderella. After the queen and the chancellor attempt to instruct the socially inept young king about how to make conversation, and teach him to ask "how are you," the chancellor answers that his back hurts. As soon as the king gets out among the common people and asks "How are you," he follows it up with, "And how is your back?"

Despite these clever moments, I consider the writing to be a serious weakness in this otherwise brilliant production. Mr. Kenny's script is off-putting in its violence, cynicism, and sexism, and remains so even after the production apparently excised sections deemed most likely to offend. Five-year-olds, who are at the lower end of the recommended age, may be too young to avoid nightmares after the "happy ending" taken straight from the Grimm brothers, in which Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in two. At least one Web site recommends Mr. Kenny's version for ages eight and up, although another refers to it as "wholesome.", I may be in the minority in my negative reaction to the script, but I am sure that Mr. Kenny's version would have frightened me out of my wits at the age of five.

The director introduced the show by explaining that it raises many moral questions. She urged the children in the audience to examine the ethical issues carefully. I don't know if someone will introduce the play in this fashion at every performance, but parents may want to warn their children about some of the darker moments as well as discuss the moral conundrums that the story raises: Is it ever wrong to demand a promise in exchange for doing something? When, if ever, is it permissible to break a promise? Shouldn't the miller's daughter have told the king the truth at the end about her inability to spin straw into gold? If she had told the truth about why she was sending messengers to collect every possible name in the kingdom, would that have helped matters or hurt? Is deception ever appropriate in a close relationship? Should someone continue a relationship with a significant other who threatens violence? Why did the prince's mother allow her son, who was still a child when he became king, to do everything he wanted, including spend all the kingdom's money on himself? Is it appropriate to defer to a leader who has proven unworthy of respect?

Imagination Stage has done everything right in this production of RUMPELSTILTSKIN. With my caveat about the sinister aspects of the script, I recommend this show except for easily frightened children.

RUMPELSTILTSKIN is playing through March 16, 2014, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland 20814, Box Office: 301-280-1660; . Regular performances are on weekends, with school field trip performances on weekdays. Tickets range from $12, with a limited number of $10 tickets available for each performance, courtesy of the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation, by calling the box office. The reduced price tickets go on sale for the following week's performances on Monday mornings at 10:00 a.m.

PHOTO CREDIT: Margot Schulman

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