By Emily S. Mendel
Berkeley Rep’s The Wild Bride is a fantastic theatrical experience. Fresh from England, the extraordinary Kneehigh Theatre traveled to Berkeley to bring us a rare holiday gift — an imaginative creation based on an ancient fairy tale, with a cast of only six ultra-talented actors/musicians/dancers. In the course of the evening, the troupe enchants us, scares us, moves us and jokes with us.
This haunting, yet animated theatrical event follows the Grimm Brothers’ version of the fairytale, The Handless Maiden, but is set in the rural South. A daughter is mistakenly sold to the devil by her naïve father. The daughter, aka The Girl, is too clean for the devil to take her, so she is bathed in excrement and mud. The devil, finding her still too pure, forces her father to cut off her hands. The Girl’s bloody arms emerge from a bucket. Thus, shamed, angry and amputated, The Girl escapes into the woods to begin the next phase of her life.
She becomes a new woman with each chapter of her life — daughter, wife, and mother. Audrey Brisson captures the pathos of The Girl, Patricja Kujawska is wonderfully expressive as The Wild and Éva Magyar embodies The Woman.
Eventually, The Wild is assisted by a prince. They fall in love and marry. War strikes, thanks to the Devil, and the newly crowned king heads off to lead his troops to war, leaving his wife and unborn child behind. The remains of their lives alternate between terror and redemption.
Although the three women are mute through most of the production and give up their lives to dominating men, the women’s persistent ability to survive without the help of men speaks louder than their voices.
Stuart Goodwin is terrific and makes both father and husband authentic and sympathetic, while keeping the two parts distinct. Stuart McLoughlin is most outstanding as the human personae of an ominous and scary Satan. McLoughlin plays and sings the cool country blues with an astonishing vocal range.
Generally, the music and singing are tuneful when needed, and morose and wailing during the dark parts. Etta Murfitt’s choreography ranges from stylized moves of burlesque, to classical and modern dance sequences.
Most of Act One was theatrically thrilling. The second part of Act Two was moving and heartwarming. That leaves the middle of The Wild Bride, which seemed to lose its way and felt a bit like filler. The Wild Bride’s quirky style has the possibility of becoming a bit repetitive. We’ve already gotten over our initial excitement; now we’d like the story to go deeper, have a bit more heft and at the same time, keep tempo.
The Wild Bride is blessed with an inventive, though simple stage set, centered with metal mesh, wooden poles and ladders that resemble creepy haunted woods. The sound and visual effects are also ingenious. Note the vivid white lightning flashes that accompany the devil’s most reprehensible acts and the party favors that make loud popping sounds at an intimate moment.
This is a wonderfully inventive and creative piece. The Berkeley Rep audience cheered, clapped and stood, confirming that The Wild Bride appeals to an eclectic mix of young and old.
Adaptor and Director, Emma Rice,
Carl Grose, Text and Lyrics
Stu Barker, Music
Etta Murfitt, Choreographer
Bill Mitchell, Scenic Design
Audrey Brisson, The Girl
Stuart Goodwin, The Father and The Prince
Patrycja Kujawska, The Wild
Éva Magyar, The Woman
Stuart McLoughlin, The Devil
Ian Ross, The Musician