|Patrycja Kujawska as The Wild Bride|
As I was parking the motorcycle I realized I haven't been to Berkeley Rep for over a couple of years- not since The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I hadn't realized Freight and Salvage is now across the street from the Roda Theater and the restaurant Downtown is gone, replaced by Revival Bar+Kitchen- a favorite of Isabella's. I was glad to see Half-Price Books was still there, but I wondered how much longer it could last, even in one of the world's most sophisticated college towns. We stopped in at the packed Revival for a drink before the show. Usually I'm skeptical of the whole "artisinal cocktail" scene- the drinks often seem targeted to twenty-somethings and others with a preference for the sweet over the savory, but I have to hand it to the bartenders at Revival- they know their stuff and the drinks are good. Isabella vouches for the food.
From there we turned the corner and headed to the Roda, where Berkeley Rep is turning over the house this month to England's Kneehigh Theatre company for the American premiere of The Wild Bride- a dark, beautiful spin on the somewhat brutal fairy tale "The Handless Maiden," best known through the Brothers Grimm version, though there are others. Sadly, I missed Kneehigh's well-received Brief Encounter at A.C.T. last year, so when Isabella said she wanted to see this I agreed, despite finding the promotional video on Berkeley Rep's site a little off-putting (having seen the show I now appreciate it more). The play turned out to be one of the best things I've seen this year, in no small part due to its extraordinarily talented cast.
The story, about a girl whose father (Stuart Goodwin) unwittingly sells her to the Devil (Stuart McLoughlin), is broken into three parts. In the first The Girl is portrayed by Audrey Brisson- a phenomenal talent who can act, sing, and move will equal strength. The father, who thought he was giving the Devil an apple tree, not his only child, ends up chopping off the the girl's hands at the Devil's insistence- an act staged so harshly it caused a couple of walk-outs. I found it more dramatically effective than horrific, though it does take the play down a dark road with unexpected swiftness. There was much to admire in Brisson's performance (including a voice that falls somewhere between Alannah Myles' and Lisa Gerrard's), but what set her apart was her ability to be fully present in supporting parts after The Girl grows into The Wild and the role is taken over by Patrycja Kujawska during the second part, in which the daughter goes out into the wood to survive on her own rather than give in to the Devil.
Kujawska's turn feels like an entirely different play, and that's a strength of this highly creative production by Emma Rice. The girl's circumstances have changed- her innocence has cost her yet she clings to it as she tries to survive in the wild. Now mute, it's there she meets a prince (Goodwin), who takes her as his bride and outfits her with preposterous metal hands, which provides for some comic bits. It's not as dark as it sounds and many parts of this section are absolutely delightful. The Devil soon returns to wreak more havoc and the girl, now the mother of an infant, is forced to flee for her life once again. Kujawska, who resembles Kirsten Dunst, gives a strong performance. Hers is perhaps the most challenging role as its a mostly physical performance. Her Wild Bride has been horribly abused and yet her spirit remains unbowed. Kujawska's face is able to convey so much- her smile is likely to stay in your mind long after the play is over. She's also a fine violinist, especially in the third part, which finds the role taken over by Éva Magyar, now playing The Woman.
The Wild Bride loses a bit of steam when Magyar takes over. Until this point, she has been the least involved of the participants onstage and her assumption of the role lacks the impact created by Brisson and Kujawska. She's intense, but doesn't match her predecessors in staking out something altogether her own in the portrayal. Some of this is magnified by the third part's quieter, more ruminative tone as the Woman raises her child in the wilderness. I won't reveal how it ends, but it is a fairy tale and the play emerges from its darkness toward a lighter place, creating an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Musically, this last part is the strongest of the show, though through it all musician Ian Ross has been onstage providing some wonderful, Robert Johnson-inspired blues guitar work. "Crossroads" is a theme threaded through the play, both dramatically and musically, adding a touch of the mythic to it all, resulting in something very familiar and yet foreign because Rice and her team bring such imaginative touches to every aspect of the production. The music is a key component of it all, deeply immersed in American roots, it provides a unifying thread through three segments of distinctly different tone. It also helps that Goodwin and McLoughlin are as adept at singing as they are acting and both were strong in their respective roles. McLoughlin's Devil has more than a touch of magical realism offsetting the vileness of his desires- never is he sympathetic, but he's always got your interest and the show really belongs to him. Goodwin displays a lot of versatility alternating between the roles of the father and prince.
After the performance all of the cast gathered in the lobby and performed for about half an hour while wine and snacks were served in the courtyard. It was just fortuitous luck we attended on "Out" night, when Berkeley Rep encourages the LGBT audience (and everyone else) to hang around afterward to talk, drink and "meet someone." I'm not sure why the event is pitched toward a specific segment of the audience based on their sexual orientation/gender identity, but we hung around for a bit and snacked, drank, and pretended to meet one another for the first time. After the cast quit a DJ took over, but we found her a bit too laid back so we got on the motorcycle and headed back across the Bay.
Midway across the bridge, since it was so clear and crisp that night, we stopped on Treasure Island to take in the view. Neither of us had been there in over fifteen years, and it was a delight to do something so touristy. We bought the last hot dogs the vendor had and munched on them while looking at the City. The view really can't be topped, especially during the holidays when the Embarcadero is outlined in lights. We waited some time after the guy drinking straight from a bottle of Crown Royal loaded his girlfriend into his car and drove away before we resumed the ride back.