Chicago Theatre Review
Grimm never looked so Good
The Dead Prince – Strange Tree Group
Many people forget how dark fairy tales are supposed to be. They were made for instruction and nothing captures our attention quite like death, danger, and dismemberment. Nothing quite entertains us like that either. The Dead Prince dances nimbly across the border between light, humorous storytelling and chilling, bloody drama. It is a tale filled with love and affection for how “Once upon a time” invariably falls out, with the occasional self-aware tweak of wondering why it is invariable.
When entering the theater we step onto the mossy ground of an enchanted forest and into the light of a campfire set beside an old caravan, inside which a large band of persons are making all sorts of music. This company turns out to bandits (or thespians, these seem a little confused on the matter) and after debating whether to tell us tales or slit our throats the Captain (Elizabeth Bagby) happily decides on the latter and strikes up the story. Once upon a time a young princess named Sara (Ann Sonneville) and her best friend and minstrel Will (Zachary Sigelko) traveled throughout the land questing for the Prince (Scott Cupper) destined to be her true love. But all portents and prophesy and magical gewgaws they consulted illuminated to her that her intended prince had died, and therefore would not be good husband material. Undeterred Sara made a deal with Maldorf (Michael Thomas Downey), a wizard trapped in a magic mirror: his freedom for her love restored to life. They traveled through the intended forest and picked up many a boon companion and did indeed find her Dead Prince. But once he was awaked, Death herself (Amber Vaughn Robinson) begins to follow them, seeking to take back her own, and anyone who stands in her way.
Strange Tree Group has obviously had a lot of fun bringing this new musical by Emily Schwartz to life. They go all out with Noah Gintext’s puppets of forest animals (ah, those pip-voiced bluebirds of menace, well done Ms.’s Robinson and Scanlon), careening stage combat, and innovative scene changing devices. It’s a gift for the eyes, both a banquet and a circus. Sadly, despite the undeniable proficiency of the cast, the musical numbers do not measure up. It’s all very imaginative and sweet and sung well, but the songs composed of so much carpet-bare sentiment (though “A Song About Bats” should stick in your memory) that the tune and words wing away from you the moment you leave the doors.
The lack of musical stickiness is more than made up for the vibrancy of the characters. Sonneville displays a great deal more common sense than other fairy tale princesses, and we adore and thank her for it. She may not be as well possessed of emotional intelligence or decisiveness, but those are faults to be pitied, since we as a whole aren’t either. Bagby is everything you want in a bandit storyteller: sharp, clear voiced, with a love of the roll and rhyme of her narration and a piratical delight in sending the narrative off in a new direction. Downey plays the cantankerous evil wizard to the hilt, making the most his many small pranks and a great deal over his conversion from a malevolent force to a friendly creature. Of course the darling of the evening was Cupper as the reanimated prince. Possessed of the manners, virtues and foppishness of any true fairytale prince Cupper also showcased his great command over physical comedy through the princes partly-decomposed mussels, dust filled lungs and the occasional mouse that crawled out of his ear. We could have watched him flop about for hours.
The show wobbles back and offers something for everyone: kid-friendly interactions with talking animals, very thinly veiled bawdy jokes, broad physical comedy to sharp-pointed self satire. It’s all fun from the first minute but it really falls into a captivating cantor when Death herself arrives on the scene. In a hundred minutes of fast paced action and high-speed shenanigans Death’s molasses slow movements, quite apart from her offhanded way of choking the life out characters we’ve come to care about, is eldirich, eerie, and scarier than any horror film you could care to name because she’s right here in the room with you.
Fairy tales are meant to be about instruction and it’s hard to tell what the Dead Prince is teaching us about living life or following the heart. But this is a case in which the love of the telling is worth more than the intent and the story is so charming, so clever and beguiling that it you don’t care what the intent is. You just want it to keep going. In summation: if you liked the Princess Bride, you’ll love this as well.
Highly recommended by Ben Kemper
Strange Tree Group
The DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolf Street
November 17-December 22
100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets available at www.strangetree.org
For more information visit www.theatreinchicago.com