Revisionists, post-modernists and deconstructionists have been busy for years excavating the sinister subtexts that lurk between “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after.” In his elaborately imagined “Sleeping Beauty” for the Young Vic, playing at Gotham bijou the New Victory through Feb. 27, talented British director Rufus Norris follows that same path, conjuring a grimly enchanted world rippled with Monty Pythonesque humor and post-Python Terry Gilliam-style grotesquerie. While it’s overlong and lacks a solid human focus, the play is an arresting spectacle, incorporating elements of operetta, musical and mime, and enhanced by Katrina Lindsay’s bold design.
Norris has a gift for constructing dynamic action fields around geometric designs. In his perversely wicked London staging of David Eldridge’s “Festen,” (headed for Broadway in the fall), the director creates an imaginary psych ward for the play’s sicko Scandinavian family around a long rectangular dinner table. In “Sleeping Beauty,” he weaves a dark, vividly populated kingdom of gruesome perils around Lindsay’s highly mechanized wheel of concentric circles, studded with trapdoors.
Even before the action begins, those circles exercise a hypnotic spell: the lethal spindle that sends Sleeping Beauty into her 100-year slumber rotates obsessively beneath the set’s gloomy moon and suspended palace while Richard Chew’s eerie music casts the image into a kind of Uri Geller mind warp.
Those familiar with Charles Perrault’s classic 17th-century fairy tale through its sugary Disney incarnation will find much has changed in Norris’ re-envisioning. The guide for the story is slovenly fairy Goody (Helena Lymbery), whose unfortunate side effect of toxic flatulence with each spell cast becomes a tiresome running gag that never fails to get a laugh from the tykes. Having impregnated the fertility-challenged Queen (Katie Quentin) with an incantation, Goody was promised an invite to the baby’s royal naming-day shindig by the King (Nick Cavaliere) but was shut out due to the hygiene-obsessed Queen’s disdain for her odor. Goody responded to the slight by casting the legendary sleep spell on Beauty (Lyndsey Marshal), which kicks in before her 16th birthday.
Now remorseful, the fairy is trawling the forest for a prince to kiss the girl and break the spell. Easier said than done. The first two candidates fall foul, respectively, of a man-eating Ogre (Nicholas Beveney) and a field of deadly weeds. The third (all three are amusingly played by James Loye) is in desperate need of a heavy Ritalin dose but despite being more interested in hunting, eventually plants the smooch that revives Beauty.
The most significant part of the action follows the kiss, fast-forwarding to when Beauty and her Prince have two children and must contend with his suffocating mother. (“You have been a long time hunting, my son,” she says upon the Prince’s post-intermission return with wife and progeny.) Unbeknownst to either of them, the imperious dowager is an ogress who ate her husband but has a more refined palate that normally favors succulent babies.
While the cast’s general tendency toward strident pantomime perfs wears thin, Daniel Cerqueira’s Ogress is a delectably arch creation, screaming for her granddaughter to be grilled or her grandson to be prepared in a cream sauce. (“He’s done very well, the saucy boy,” she replies, when Beauty asks after her son.) But it’s the Ogress’ tragic, conflicted side that makes her more intriguing. Relying on a spell from Goody to prevent her eating her own son, she is unable to tame her appetites where her grandchildren are concerned. She’s like Kirstie Alley crossed with Shrek and Hannibal Lecter.
Beauty is rendered by Marshal as a suitably contempo-feisty heroine (“I’ll be no slave to fear,” she cries), more resourceful than her valiant but clueless Prince. But, perhaps because she comes fully grown and conscious into the cluttered action too late, the character never really takes center stage. As a result, the show remains intoxicating on a visual level but rarely engages emotionally and may be too rarefied for wide kid consumption.
Lindsay’s intricate set is matched by the fanciful mix of royal pomp and raggedy fantasy in her costumes, while Tim Mitchell’s murky lighting scheme drenches the smoke-filled stage in a moody glow. Music directors Chew and Duncan Wisbey (who doubles as a slave shackled to the Ogress’ table) animate the action with minstrel ditties and choral refrains.