Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Secret in the Wings: Mary Zimmerman Returns to the McCarter with an Evening of Scary Tales

Also see Bob's review of Harold and Maude: The Musical

Anne Fogarty and
Philip R. Smith

Director-writer Mary Zimmerman is a visionary artist who creates rare theatrical magic. Most widely known for her unique and richly imaginative adaptations of classic literature (Tony Award winner Metamorphoses based on the works of Ovid, and The Odyssey seen at the McCarter are the best known to local audiences). Her eagerly awaited re-imagination of several mostly lesser known tales from the Brothers Grimm (and other sources), The Secret in the Wings, has arrived at Princeton's McCarter Theatre where it will be intriguing audiences through February 23.

The original production created by Zimmerman for Chicago's then fledgling Lookingglass Theatre in 1991 had a handful of performances. Last season, Zimmerman directed a new production for Lookingglass. Zimmerman has now re-staged it for the McCarter (along with the Seattle Repertory and Berkeley Repertory).

Since evocative stage pictures, often eerie, sometimes whimsical, are so potent and effective here, it is probably best to begin with a description of the setting. It is a very deep, unnaturally high beamed, eerily lit basement of an old-feeling house. A long, wide, wooden, bleacher-like stairway is at stage right; at the rear toward stage right is a wardrobe through which various creatures and characters disquietingly enter and exit; at the rear toward stage left is a dark corner which seems to be covered with a pile of coal; a floor drain is center stage; and there are two platforms high overhead which seem to be rooms, although they may well be crawl spaces. There are also a couple of small strands of Christmas lights, a small chandelier hanging at an odd angle, and any number of props including three old fashioned (1930s vintage?) floor lamps. The artistry of Zimmerman's design team (set designer Daniel Ostling, lighting designer T. J. Gerckens and creators of the original music and sound designers Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) combine to make the setting feel like the Addams Family basement.

Within this setting a very modern and eccentric version of Perrault's Beauty and the Beast is being played out. Young Heidi (Tiffany Scott) is terrified. Her self-centered, distracted parents are about to leave for an evening out. Their next door neighbor Mr. Donahue (portrayed in an appropriately terrifying manner by Christopher Donahue) has been hired to be her sitter. Heidi informs them that he is an ogre and he has a tail. Her parents dismiss her fears as nonsense. However, we see Mr. Donahue coming down the stairs, and he is a deformed ogre with a giant tail. Shortly after her parents leave, and repeatedly through the evening, Mr. Donahue will say to his charge, "Heidi, will you marry me?" Is his appearance and question a figment of Heidi's (and our) unfounded fears and childish imagination? Is he a stand-in for the close-by pederast who poses a danger to which modern day parents are sometimes criminally blind?" There are no answers to these questions. However, it is part of Zimmerman's genius that she puts such thoughts into our heads.

This story is the framing device for the depiction of five additional fairy tales which Mr. Donahue will share with Heidi. Each of these very dark, complex stories —The Three Blind Queens, The Princess Who Wouldn't Laugh, The Seven Swans, and two others - are taken to their darkest and direst moment, and then interrupted in order for the next story to be enacted. For a long while, the evening is serendipitous. There is an enveloping, heightened sense of danger, antic humor, and stunning theatrically in the imaginative script, antic performances, and evocative scenery, lighting, costumes, props, music and sound effects.

However, about two-thirds of the ways through - when it becomes time to complete the tales - matters become very confusing. Suddenly it is difficult to tell where one story ends and another continues, or even how many stories there actually are. It seems to me (and I may be absolutely wrong here) that Zimmerman has conflagrated elements from additional stories into the basic ones at hand.

In any event, the extended and not completely successful effort to straighten out the various storylines pulled me out of the magic which The Secret in the Windows had until then exerted. No matter how hard I tried, I could not recapture it.

Mary Zimmerman may be so clear about the material that she cannot see what would confuse an audience. It is also possible that she is seeking a psychological or dream logic which I failed to follow. A second viewing might make matters clearer. Given the brilliance of The Secret in the Wings to this point, it is my intention to see it again and try to find out.

The stories deal with barbarity, infanticide, cannibalism, incest and pederasty among other horrendous and/or forbidden topics and were not adopted with children in mind. The adaptation does have a fantastical quality and is may be suitable for precocious elementary school children and all but the most sensitive middle schoolers. However, be warned that queasy, easily offended adults should probably stay away along with their children. Those who enjoy the marvelous stories of Edward Gorey will be royally pleased.

It has been reported that six of the actors appeared in the original 1991 production, and that the other three members of the cast are Zimmerman veterans. What matters is that the entire cast forms a seamless ensemble. The ensemble is listed alphabetically with no indication of any the considerable number of roles which are distributed among them. Thus, it is not possible to review the performers individually. However, the performances are uniformly excellent. It seems clear that the actors have drawn elements of their performances from their own theatrical skills and sensibilities.

Mary Zimmerman creates beautiful stage pictures. In one scene, she utilizes two hand-held picture frames to create resonant effects. In another, a princess escaping into the forest is enveloped in trees which swirl about, attached to the heads of actors. Most importantly, Zimmerman captures the primal childhood fears which have given these ages-old European "scary tales" their longevity. Although it fails to go the distance, The Secret in the Wings is a richly evocative, transporting evening of theatre.

The Secret in the Wings continues performances through February 13, 2005 at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540, Box Office: 609-258-ARTS (2787); online

The Secret in the Wings, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman

Mark Alhadeff
Christopher Donahue
Laura Eason
Anne Fogarty
Raymond Fox
Louise Lamson
Erik Lochtefeld
Tiffany Scott
Philip R. Smith

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell

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