Rapunzel lets her hair down, and then some, in Kneehigh Theater’s fanciful retelling of the centuries-old story. The tale of the gal having the bad hair day takes some grotesque turns, with inventive staging — and a magic pig — contributing to the overall success of the enterprise.
Kneehigh engages in what one might call high-spirited, theatrical anarchy. Started by a schoolteacher in 1980, the Brit company is currently in the spotlight thanks to the smashing reception of its West End stage version of “Brief Encounter,” for which U.S. producers are currently waging an enthusiastic battle for transfer rights.
“Rapunzel,” which premiered in December at the Battersea Arts Center, is unlikely to cause the same grade of excitement during its three-week run at the New Victory. This children’s show is noteworthy and highly imaginative, but it didn’t exactly grip the audience — kids or adults — at the performance reviewed.
Story, as re-envisioned by Annie Siddons and adapted by helmer and Kneehigh a.d. Emma Rice, tells of an orphan adopted by eccentric herbalist Mother Gothel (Charlie Barnecut). The child is named Rapunzel (Edith Tankus) after the herb (“field salad,” in English) beneath which she is found. When locals notice that the girl is flowering, Gothel locks her in a tower reachable only by climbing those tresses.
Wandering prince Patrizio (Pieter Lawman) — heir to the throne of the Duke of Tuscany — comes by, climbs the hair (asking kids in the audience for the secret “let down your hair” chant) and enjoys a night of young love. When mater finds out, she all but scalps Rapunzel and expels her. Then, for good measure, she uses the scissors to pluck out Patrizio’s eyes.
The second act finds the wearied Rapunzel robbed and assaulted as she searches for Patrizio, who’s being similarly maltreated as he blindly stumbles through the forest. Both are eventually befriended by their assaulters — there’s a lot of humorous doubling going on — and it all winds up as fairy tales are meant to wind up, thanks in great part to a magic pig that presents Rapunzel with three gold acorns. (The acorns are engorged in — well, let’s just say they had been stored in the pig’s intestines. The delivery of the acorns was greeted by groans, laughs and yells of “Gross!” from the youngsters in the house.)
Central element of Rice’s production is a platform which, when attached to ropes, flies up over the deck. This becomes Rapunzel’s tower and is used to great effect as a trapeze-like swing. Cast of seven — when they are not acting, singing or serving as the mandolin-heavy band — are scattered around the theater, running up the aisles, climbing through the rows and sliding down fireman’s poles from the boxes to the orchestra floor.
The talented and versatile cast has plenty of charm, led by Tankus as Rapunzel, Kneehigh founding member Barnecut doubling as Mother Gothel and Patrizio’s villainous brother, Lawman as the mandolin-playing hero and Paul Hunter as a rascally scamp in curved-toe shoes who engages in philosophical discussions with the audience. And that life-sized boar is a real crowd-pleaser, even if it is a puppet operated by a human in full view.
This New York debut of the Kneehigh troupe will presumably bring “Rapunzel” some attention. The play is worthy on many levels, but a revelatory piece of astonishing theater craft it’s not.