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Sunday, 15 April 2012 00:01

The secret’s in the storytelling

Written by Mark Bretz

The Details

Mary Zimmerman comes by her academic standards naturally, as the daughter of two college professors at the University of Nebraska. Her writing skills, however, are the product of a fanciful imagination that has guided her artistic achievements since childhood.

Zimmerman earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees all from Northwestern University, which she later joined as a faculty member and professor of performance studies. Additionally, she’s a member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago and artistic associate of the famed Goodman Repertory Theatre in Chicago as well as the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The multiple award-winning playwright and director draws inspiration for many of her works from classical literature, sources as diverse as Ovid, Homer, Greek mythology and the Brothers Grimm. The latter served as the genesis for her clever, two-act effort The Secret in the Wings, which debuted in 1991 at the Lookingglass. Like Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, Arabian Nights and other of her works, Secret in the Wings is an adaptation by Zimmerman of existing works, here a collection of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and similar sources.

St. Louis Community College-Meramec recently staged a clever if overly precious version directed by associate professor and program coordinator Michelle Rebollo. A walk into the Meramec Theatre feels a bit like entering into some ethereal realm, as scenic designer Darren Thompson shrewdly utilizes the generous stage to present a handsome, three-tiered design. The second-floor serves as an entrance into young Heidi’s home, offset by a large, barred window near a steep set of stairs that descends into the family basement. The bottom area, shown beneath the basement floor, is a kind of crawl space akin to what both intrigued and scared the playwright when she was a child in her own parents’ home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Rebollo’s direction is best in accentuating the fanciful elements of the production, such as some moody background music she herself designed, or a whimsical array of delightful puppets and masks created by Em Rossi. Rick Willmore provides an abundance of stylized props, including a creepy and clever elongated balloon snake constructed by Jim Robert and a grisly tail that protrudes from Heidi’s menacing neighbor, Mr. Fitzpatrick, whom her parents unwisely enlist to babysit their daughter.

No sooner do Heidi’s dimwitted folks traipse off into the forest than the glowering Mr. Fitzpatrick makes the first of numerous requests of Heidi to marry him. This, of course, is creepy not only because of his physical appearance but also because Heidi is a little girl. If you think about it, though, fairy tales often have an unsavory or salacious aspect to them that Freud and other psychoanalysts have observed in the last two centuries.

Rossi also provides a number of amusing costumes that complement the tales that construct this fable, all of which are started in Act I and concluded in the relatively brief second act. A wide assortment of lamps that are arranged throughout the set provide much of Thompson’s artistic lighting, which enhances the effect of an adult reading some imaginative piece at the bedside of a wide-eyed child.

Those tales include a bit about three blind queens who are left behind when their kings march off to war for 17 long years, eventually pulling out their own eyes and eating two of their three children while facing starvation. There’s an ode to a snake, a yarn about The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh, a bit about girls razzing each other in Alleriera and a bizarre but poignant piece titled Silent for Seven Years, in which a stern father’s only daughter takes a vow of silence to help her seven brothers escape from the old man’s curse of turning his wastrel boys into swans.

Rebollo’s enthusiastic cast energetically immerse themselves into sundry roles and all do well, although a couple of performances stand out. Elizabeth Pajares delights as the wary Heidi and in a number of other parts, while Chuck Winning maintains a macabre, malevolent demeanor as the sinister Mr. Fitzpatrick. Others contributing to the show’s success include Ashley Bauman, Andrew Bayer, Stephen Henley, Haley Kemper, Hannah Pauluhn, Kate Schmidt, Caroline Steinkamp, David Wibbenmeyer, Josh Wolk and Jorge Villareal.

There’s a lot going on at any given time, with fairies or gremlins or whatnot creeping in and out of the crawl space to feast upon Heidi’s fears. The production’s primary problem is when it gets bogged down in a glacierly pace as Rebollo puts her cast in slow motion as they stretch out the often flimsy story arcs. That element is more annoying than significant, although it doesn’t ruin the finer aspects of the presentation.

Zimmerman’s mind always seems to be concocting some clever variation on a familiar fable, some more successful than others. The Secret in the Wings is a fine vehicle for stretching the artistic ambitions of technicians and performers alike, as exemplified in the Meramec interpretation.

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