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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Intrepid Frank Theatre pushes boundaries
with Sicilian Nights

Once upon a time, there was a fearless artistic director. Her name was Wendy Knox. She was more fearless by far than all the other directors in the land. She named her theater Frank Theatre and put on difficult works like the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and, what's more, she put it on in a former ammunition factory, slated for demolition. She played The Taming of the Shrew as a domestic abuse drama. She created a hit with the 1937 socialist folk opera The Cradle Will Rock, and performed it in an abandoned Sears warehouse in a poor neighborhood.

Sicilian NightsSo fearless was Wendy that one day she decided to put on a five-hour cycle of fairy tales, called, Sicilian Nights. It is a tale that is ribald, funny and hobnail tough. The story delves into power, gender and class conflict. She decided to put the cycle on in that same vast space in the Sears building.

"Five hours?" the townspeople asked in amazement. Well, five hours plus a little bit, actually! Wendy knows that she will either be rewarded with over-spilling treasure chests of praise or, like the kings in fairy tales, the critics will slice off her head.

"It's a monster adventure," said Knox, her eyes bright, as she sat among the turrets and arches of Michael Sommers' almost complete set. "It's really fun and really hard to do. We'll present it in two collections [on alternate nights] and do the whole thing on Sundays, with a boxed lunch available from Buon Giorno. You see," she laughed, "Frank's becoming a dinner theater!"

Jack Zipes, Professor of German at the University of Minnesota, a linguist, playwright, translator and author, adapted and wrote Sicilian Nights and flew from his sabbatical in Rome to be here for the opening.

He drew heavily on the Sicilian peasant stories from his recently published book "Beautiful Angiola: The Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales, Collected by Laura Gonzenbach," his translation into English of Gonzenbach's collection of 92 folk tales that she gathered from peasant women in the summer of 1868. He selected tales from the Sicilian stories, added some of his own and drew upon Arabic, German and French folk tales.

"My original manuscript took eight hours," says Zipes, "but Wendy got out her scissors, took out scenes and gave me my marching orders. It's a difficult process, but I've learned a lot from her and got a lot of feedback from the actors. The cuts are not for artistic reasons but for production reasons."

Although it has been hard to watch his words being changed, Zipes says it has been a great collaboration, and his intention in Sicilian Nights remains intact. "A major theme of the play is how storytelling impinges on one's life," he said. "My philosophy is, if you don't know how to narrate your own life, then you will be at the mercy of forces and conditions that act upon you. These stories are told by peasant women. They're down-trodden, but they have spirit and vitality. Through their stories, they take charge."

Zipes frames the independent but complementary sections of Sicilian Nights with Gonzenbach and her sister, as they collect the stories from Sicilian peasants. "The women are stunning storytellers," he said, "and as they speak, the frame characters slip into the action of the story. Laura becomes the Haunted Princess, and a young aristocrat becomes the Prince. The sleeping prince is very unusual," he adds, mysteriously.

"The stories fit into each other like Russian nesting dolls," said Knox. "The script has come light years from where it was in its first draft last summer." Around her are the props of fairy tales, a spinning wheel, a well, a rack of Kathy Kohl's creative costumes and a sarcophagus with a moving part - I say no more.

Each section can be seen separately, or sequentially. Knox hopes to play the first collection, "The Haunted Princess," at one-and-a-half-hours-long, without an intermission. The second collection of "Clever Valentina" and "The Tale of Tales" will be longer and have at least one intermission. On Sundays, the entire performance will be played, like a happening.

"Many of the original tales are naughty and brutal," Knox said. "They're told to teach us about the world around us." She gave as an example "Little Red Riding Hood," which is about rape, and warns, don't walk in lonely places on your own. "Those sharp edges in storytelling are important." she said. "The tales in Sicilian Nights teach that a curse has only as much power as you give it."

Both Knox and Zipes made it clear that Sicilian Nights has none of Disney's sugar-coating. The stories do not deal in the Grimm Brothers "and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after" endings but are packed with life's thorns and warts. "These tales are more subversive," said Zipes. "They have a certain immorality. Life is not orderly and happy."

"Sicilian Nights is not for children," Knox emphasized. "It's for adults, but it's all right for high school kids."

When you come, Fearless Wendy plans for you to follow long strings of fairy lights through the vast darkness of the Sears space and into the lusty enchantment of Sicilian Nights.

Brave Wendy hopes to keep her head
and die of old age, asleep in her bed.

Sicilian Nights March 5 - April 4. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m., alternating Collections One and Two. Sundays 2:00 p.m. for entire cycle, with box lunch available for $10. $20 for an individual Collection and a $5 discount, if you see the second . $30 for entire cycle Sunday matinees. Sunday March 7, pay-what-you can. Frank Theatre, The Sears Building, 900, East Lake Street, Minneapolis. Free, fenced parking on west side. 612-724-3760. www.franktheatre.org.


Photo: Jack Zipes



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Elizabeth Weir



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