Friday, August 6, 2010

Grimm isn't so grim

In a way, I'd have to say that Grimm, Company One's "remix" of the Brothers Grimm, says something grim about the current state of playwriting. Out of the seven authors the ambitious young theatre commissioned to "re-imagine" the familiar folk tales, really only one - Kirsten Greenidge - came up with a new, fully-fledged play. The rest - some of whom have national profiles - delivered long-form sketches of one type or other.

Why did things turn out that way? I'm not really sure. But the very concept of the evening feels slightly past its fresh date, to be honest, and the familiarity of the tales may have proven something of a challenge to the authors, many of whom "play off" the originals rather than truly re-imagine them. (It's perhaps telling that Greenidge chose to "remix" the least familiar of the seven, the odd "Clever Else.") And several succumbed to the temptation of simply contrasting the Germanic whiteness of the original stories with the politically correct mores of our "post-racial" present, and so wound up with skits that might have played years ago on In Living Color or Chappelle's Show. In a way, this sometimes made the tales just as cutesy as their versions on the Disney Channel - just with, you know, outrageous attitude, etc.

But at the same time that I found myself disliking most of the scripts, I found myself liking the cast more and more as the evening progressed. They're basically out to show us a good time, and mostly sell the sketches, one way or another. And while perhaps there's no new Brando lurking in their ranks, there are plenty of resourceful and committed performers, who were up for pretty much anything, and had no trouble morphing from Southie girls to Snow White in a single bound. The lighting and design elements (particularly Arshan Gailus's imaginative soundtrack) were likewise strong - or at least as strong as they could be given how much ground they had to cover.

It must be said, however, that several of these writers (particularly the supposed heavy hitters) have written real clinkers. Gregory Maguire (of Wicked fame) and local scribe Melinda Lopez both left me bored with their respective tales; Maguire was repetitive, while Lopez was just flat. Somewhat better were the kickier, if looser and sillier, "Cry Baby Jones," by John ADEkoje, and "Half Handsome & Regrettable," by Marcus Gardley - which featured a very funny turn by company stalwart Mason Sand, as well as an appealingly gonzo one from Victoria Marsh. Meanwhile Lydia R. Diamond dusted off her core brand (racism!) for "The White Bride and the Black Bride," in which three young readers discover that - gasp - the Brothers Grimm liked the color white a whole hell of a lot more than they liked the color black. (You could make the same critique of George Lucas and Star Wars, but never mind.) Still, Diamond was at least witty in her development - and she's by now self-conscious enough to de-construct her own position halfway through. And the skit featured a real sparkler in newcomer Tasia A. Jones, whose freshness kept the slightly-tired political outrage lightly buoyant.

The best scripts of the evening were probably John Kuntz's "Red" (featuring Raymond J. Ramirez and Becca A. Lewis - both above left), and Greenidge's "Thanksgiving." Kuntz re-imagined "Little Red Riding Hood" as a sexual power game - only that doesn't really take that much imagination, does it? Still, even if "Red" was predictable, it was always creepily gripping, and Lewis - who'd been a model of versatility, btw, throughout the evening - was fearless as the "victim" who, of course, might be anything but.

Lewis also shone in "Thanksgiving," along with newcomers Molly Kimmerling and Nicole Prefontaine, who aced the accents as well as the buried resentments of three under-achieving townie girls, now all trapped in marriage and motherhood (the script revolves around their endless wait for their little girls outside ballet class). I was a bit worried at first that Greenidge was indulging in what I've begun to call "whiteface" - a new age variant of the minstrel show in which the (often formerly) racist white underclass itself becomes the object of affectionate comic stereotype. But in the end,"Thanksgiving" proved subtle and thoughtful enough to transcend such concerns. And hey, one out of seven ain't bad, is it? Particularly when all seven get the benefit of this kind of production?