You know the story--the disgusting step-sisters and the mean step-mother go to the eligible prince's ball leaving an abused girl in rags by the sooty hearth except that a fairy godmother appears and turns her rags to satin, a pumpkin into a carriage, the kitchen mice into coachmen and the girl now a dazzling beauty goes to the ball, wins the prince but all he has when the evening ends is her shoe.
ASHES, ASHES, WE ALL FALL
Except on February 5, 2008, at the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts (College Park, MD), the Dresser saw Timberlake Wertenbaker's musicalized play The Ash Girl and now has a new view of Cinderella. For starters, her stepsisters (played by Kelly McGuigan and Kate Wolfe) are annoying, but they want to study science and nature and not to be bothered about going to the ball. Their alcoholic mother (played by Sarah Shook looking like a Saturday Night Live version of Goldie Hawn), who has been abandoned by Ashie's father, has problems with money and makes lots of bad decisions, including the eventual mutilation of her daughters' feet.
Photo by: Stan Barouh
But Ashie (Liz Brown) is depressed and hides in the ashes, when she emerges (and this is scary), she tells the audience, "Ashes are warm. In the ashes, no one sees you. Ashes are safe. I will stay in these ashes, melt into them." Wow, is she ever depressed! What we find out much later is that her father has incestuous feelings for his daughter so he left home to battle his demons.
Hold on, the demons (also known as the Seven Deadly Sins plus one) have bodily forms and go by the names: Angerbird, Slothworm, Pridefly, Envysnake, Greedmonkey, Lust, Gluttontoad, and Sadness. And is Ash Girl friendless? No. She has eight friends to balance out the eight demons (Sadness is not considered by the Seven Deadlies to be one of them). Ashie's friends are Boymouse, Girlmouse, Otter, Owl, Fairy in the Mirror, and three spider friends. Finally, the prince (Andrew Blau) is a stranger in a strange land. He has been forced to flee his country (possibly India) because of a political situation that has felled his father. His mother (Maya Jackson) wants him to marry a local girl and assimilate, but he thinks his neighbors are all too white.
DRAMA THROUGH MOVEMENT AND COLOR
What the Dresser particularly loved about this production was the stylized movements of the Deadlies and Ashie's friends. As the audience got seated, Owl (played by David Olson) was on stage presiding. He squatted and rose in his owlness. The Dresser found his presence and performance as engaging as any professional street mime she has encountered in San Francisco, California, or Florence, Italy. Angerbird (played by Aaron Bliden) dressed in punk laced up boots and coifed with a Mohawk moved quirkily. His model seemed to be a teenage boy who is awkward and unable to control himself. The Dresser found it hard to take her eyes off this gangly creature until Pridefly (Zachary Fernebok) inserted himself into the action. While Angerbird was quirky, Pridefly was jerky--even in his speech.
Director Leslie Felbain has made Wertenbaker's play, which received its world premiere in 2000, a riot of movement and color. Just as she allowed in her production of The Green Bird, Felbain encouraged the actors in The Ash Girl to speak to the audience before the show started officially and during the intermission. In the program playbill, the Dresser found a handsomely printed card inviting "all the Daughters of the House to the palace of Princess Zehra" for a ball in honor of her son Prince Amir. This eye-catching invitation became one of the talking points for the cast as they made their visits to individual audience members. Did you ever want to be in play? Felbain gave the audience their chance to participate.
The costume design team headed by Ivania Stack produced enviable wearing apparel for those dressed as humans, but even the creatures wore attractive and colorful vestments. The staging was cleverly tiered and the backdrop suggested a surreal dark forest. The scene where Fairy in the Mirror (Amanda Elkins) exerts her magic was delightful because things didn't always present as expected. The Fairy allowed Ashie's animal friends to be what they want to be and so one of them was changed into a huge dragon while the other transformed to a horse wearing pink tutus.
Photo by: Stan Barouh
Original music written by Colleen Harris (she is also the music director for this production) was featured in this production. A cellist and percussionist sat on stage and played. Some of Harris' pleasing compositions sounded like Renaissance songs. In the palace ball scene, ballroom dancing mixed with a little unpolished ballet took place. Since the Dresser had not expected more than ballroom choreography, she wasn't particularly bothered by the balletic lifts that were clearly not within these dancer's abilities, but her seatmate who teaches dance cringed.
WHO IS TIMBERLAKE WERTENBAKER?
After experiencing Felbain's beautifully crafted production of The Ash Girl, the Dresser is now eager to see more work by Timberlake Wertenbaker who is an American living in London. By the way, Wertenbaker has some great lines in this play like "falling in love with a shoe is not sensible" or "being laughed at is excellent practice for marriage."
Photo by: Stan Barouh
Apparently Wertenbaker is known for addressing social realism is contemporary life, looking at non-conforming women, and packaging her cosmopolitan three-dimensional characters in historical and mythical landscapes. Wertenbaker is best known for her award-winning play Our Country's Good (1988), based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker.
As is the Dresser's tradition, she offers a poem that speaks to the subject of this review. "Prologue: Margiste Reveals" by Barbara Goldberg opens the poetic telling of Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the Short: A Merovingian Romance. Though the story is myth, it is based on the historical family of Princess Berta of Hungry and Pepin the Short of France who were the parents of Charlemagne.
Prologue: Margiste Reveals
But listen. It is an old tale.
A maiden is switched for a maiden
in the bridal bed. In the dark
who can tell? A man is a man
and humps for his own release.
The dark is dark. Does he look
at the feet? Only a mother knows
her child by the feet. Berta,
Debonaire, was quick to believe
that Pepin would come with a knife.
I disrobed Aliste in her stead.
And Berta, gagged by a rope, smothered
in cloth, was led to the lonely
dark forest of Mans. We thought all
was well. Aliste chirped like a bird,
levied taxes on pepper, cumin and wax.
We should have fled to Sicily.
Pepin twists my thumbs with screws.
I confess! I confess all! Even
the dagger, even the poison, no regrets!
A great fire is kindled with thorns.
by Barbara Goldberg
from Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the Short: A Merovingian Romance
Copyright © 1986 by Barbara Goldberg
N.B. Barbara Goldberg continues the exploration of myth in her new book The Royal Baker's Daughter, winner of the 2008 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.