Story theater can be charming. So can children’s theater, folk theater and fairy tales. But there has to be some point — and surely some pleasure — in modifying these forms for enjoyable adult consumption. Glen Berger’s whimsical sendup of British folk tale traditions, “The Wooden Breeks,” isn’t entirely without point, although our contempo culture hardly seems in need of cautionary tales about sexual repression. But the pleasure principle is shot to hell by the dreary storytelling, helmed by Trip Cullman with the sensibility of some effete intellectual marched off to the Gulag to put on a show for political prisoners.
(Fair warning: The plot sounds a lot more entertaining in precis than it does when experienced from a hard theater seat.)
The storytelling framework positions the yarn in the 19th-century Scottish village of Clekan-wittit, where a lovelorn tinker named Tom “Chimney” Bosch (Adam Rothenberg) is warming himself by a fire and brooding over the cruel trick played on him by his beloved Hetty Grigs (Ana Reeder), who ran off with a sailor and left him with her bastard son Wicker (Jaymie Dornan), along with the false promise she would return before the last flame of his fire burned out.
Years pass. To shut up Wicker, who has grown to be an annoying lad (though played with boyish charm by Dornan), Bosch agrees to tell one last tale in the continuing story cycle he has been spinning to explain Hetty’s tardiness. (In Chapter 53, she is distracted by “an enormous and carnivorous haddock.”) But he is determined to put out the fire at the end of the story, abandon Wicker and get on with whatever is left of his miserable life.
Switching to the story-within-the-story, the narrative takes us to a wretched hamlet called Brood, where the folk are plagued by famine and other miseries. Not the least of these is the bone-dry public house, closed by its proprietor, Mrs. Nelles — pronounced “nails” and played by the divine Veanne Cox — who, disregarding the lovesick pleas of the Vicar (Steve Mellor, looking trapped, but carrying on like the trouper he is), remains in perpetual mourning for her dearly departed daughter, buried these many years in the town boneyard.
All of Brood perks up with the sudden appearance of a charismatic saleswoman who is called Anna Livia Spoon but looks suspiciously like the footloose Hetty (and is played by the same less-than-charismatic actress). Miss Spoon is hawking burial bells, a device that allows prematurely buried noncorpses to send a signal alerting their loved ones to exhume them from their coffins. But her real purpose is to trick the bookish lighthouse keeper, Jarl von Hoother (in a deliciously droll turn from T. Ryder Smith), into extinguishing his life-affirming light — and bring this arch tale to an end.
Despite its interminable length (135 minutes feels like eternity) and repetitive jokes (enough with the grave-robbing), the text is stylishly written and comically rendered in thick Scottish accents by thesps properly prepped by dialect coach Stephen Gabis. But whatever is genuinely clever about the piece leeches out in production.
Taking the play’s downbeat humor entirely too literally, helmer Cullman has mounted the show in monochrome and with no visual dimension to speak of. Dull earth tones prevail, from Anita Yavich’s otherwise worthy costumes (with their actively witty built-ins) to Beowulf Boritt’s brutally austere planked sets. And let’s not even speak of the funereal lighting scheme. A spot of color and a breath of spatial air at the end of the play reveal by contrast how parched the rest of the play is for color.
The show’s only textures are those tonal ones that the actors manage to find in the language –an advanced skill at which precious few of them are adept. Cox has the most noticeable success at this trick, dropping her voice to cello level and stroking every word like a musical note. Smith is also completely at home in his lighthouse aerie, surrounded by his books and loving every ludicrous word he comes across.