Staten Island Chuck predicted an early spring, but the wet changeable winds of these last weeks remind us that spring is not yet summer. In DUMBO, St. Ann’s Warehouse greets the thaw with British company Kneehigh’s woodsy, bluesy folktale, The Wild Bride. St. Ann’s seems preoccupied with the natural world this season—The Wild Bride follows Cynthia Hopkins’ This Clement World, a musical and documentary ‘tribute to our rapidly changing environment.’ The Wild Bride, adapted from the ancient tale of “The Handless Maiden,” is a look at the natural world in its mythic guises—escape, refuge, rite of passage, wilderness, healer, exposure, and place of transformation.
An innocent girl’s father inadvertently trades her to the devil. Her hands lopped off but her purity of spirit untouched, the girl flees into the wild. Her subsequent career (and the Devil’s continued pursuit) is one of unexpected gifts, very real dangers, betrayal, and several kinds of endurance and rebirth.
This is director and adaptor Emma Rice’s second adaptation of this story. Her first, in 2002, the program notes tell us, was very “pretty.” This time, she’s gone in for something harder. Leaves litter the stage, twigs and sharp metal objects lurk under a dust-bowl inspired wind. Etta Murfitt’s deceptively simple choreography moves the outstanding ensemble like formal puppets, each movement controlled, exaggerated, and stylized, and a dangerously powerful original score by Stu Barker (drawing on the blues of Robert Johnson and on the music of the Balkans and performed by live musicians and the cast) gives the formidable collaboration its heart, ground and center.
Collaboration is the key word here—each element is so strong, and each creator so on board with the concept, that the show is seems to throb with energy, bursting at the perfectly executed seams. On some stages, perfect execution can actually stand in the way of great theater, creating a closed world that leaves the audience no way in. Rice and her team, however, have been generous with us, welcoming us with the tiny glances, glitches, and moments of communion that allow for a truly shared experience.
The Wild Bride has whimsy, beauty, and humor, but the overall effect is dark—feral and uncompromising. Wildness and endurance are celebrated, but never presented as easy. “We are changed,” says the girl (now a woman) to her lost and found husband at the end, “we are the same.” The devil has been defeated this time, but he’ll be right back, smiling.
Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 17.