The Wild Bride, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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‘The Wild Bride’

Kneehigh Theatre production
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Music by Stu Barker
Lyrics and text by Carl Grose
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Dec. 2, 2011–Jan. 22, 2012

“The Wild Bride” is a wild ride across farmland and forest, crossroads and battlefields, into palaces and out again all the way to maturity and a rueful kind of happily-ever-after. Based on a Grimm fairy tale — and, make no mistake, there are some pretty grim moments — it has been adapted and directed by Emma Rice, set to some terrific music and brought all the way to Berkeley from Cornwall, after an extensive tour of the British Isles. Kneehigh Theatre, the folks who brought the innovative adaptation of Noël Coward’s “Brief Encounter” to these shores, is back again, this time with a morality tale that is part “Faust,” part “Snow White” and part “Edward Scissorhands.” It’s funny and sad and more than a little feminist and wonderfully performed by an ensemble of talented actors, dancers and musicians.

The Devil is in the details and he is exuberantly played by Stuart McLoughlin, who sings a mean blues as part of the gig. Waiting at the crossroads (as, he warns us, he always is), he strikes a bargain with an impoverished bumpkin (Stuart Goodwin) — riches galore for whatever happens to be in the bumpkin’s backyard. The man, simply called The Father, thinks he has beat the Devil because he only has an old tree back there but, at the time the deal is made, his beloved daughter wanders into the space. And thereby hangs the tale. The Girl, played by Audrey Brisson, is so innocent and pure that, when the Devil demands payment, her tears, falling upon her hands, emit an unearthly glow. So the Devil makes her father chop them off. But she’s still too pure. So he has her smeared with mud and leaves and sends her out into the forest to fend for herself.

No home, no hands: what’s a poor girl to do? This one, now called The Wild and played by Patrycja Kujawska, dances, eats pears that drop into her mouth from an obliging tree and falls in love with a passing prince (Goodwin again as a nerdy Scotsman). He brings her home to Mama (cleverly played by a painting) and marries her. And then the real fun begins. This may be a fairy tale, but it is for adults only. The coupling of the newlyweds is as explicit as it is hilarious and the gore (first the chopping off of hands and later, eyes and a heart) isn’t easy to take. And the Devil, sometimes rather endearing and other times really scary, hasn’t given up. He sends the Prince off to war (also pretty harrowing) and the now-pregnant Girl is driven back out into the forest. Here she morphs into the Woman, played mostly in dance by the elegant Eva Magyar (who also contributed to Etta Murfitt’s excellent choreography). Time passes. Her son grows. The heartbroken Prince searches for her. And the Devil waits, as he does for all of us.

What the production lacks in man (or woman) power, it makes up for in inventiveness. When the three actresses are not playing the lead, they sing (Brisson) and play the fiddle (Kujawska), backed up by Ian Ross, billed as The Musician. McLoughlin plays the bass as well as handling most of the vocals. Brisson plays an accordion. Stu Barker’s music is a combination of folk tunes, the blues of 30s musician Robert Johnson — who himself was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in trade for his skill — and Eastern European modes. It is haunting; as is the story. “The Wild Bride” is once upon a very good time.

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