When asked to name the best play(s) I’ve ever seen, I always cited two, both original pieces based on literary works: NYC’s (now defunct) LION Theatre Company’s K (a portrait of excruciating alienation provoked by the life and work of Kafka) and Boston’s (now relocated to Ashland) DOUBLE EDGE Theatre’s SONG OF ABSENCE (an exquisitely painful reimagining of the Holocaust, inspired, among other things, by the writings of Bruno Schultz). I admire—and remain dazzled—by both because of their passion, their ideas, their intellectual resources and their capacity to astonish.
I saw the two over thirty years ago and often despaired that they had no successor…until now. Imaginary Beasts finds unorthodox, multi-disciplinary, visionary ways to interpret material as traditional as the Thornton Wilder MINIATURES they transformed last spring—or the Gothic, erotic HAIRY TALES of British novelist/feminist Angela Carter, playing right now through Oct. 26th (at the Boston Center for the Arts).
We may not be so familiar with Carter across the pond but The London Times named her tenth in their list of “The 50 greatest British writers.” She died in 1992 at the age of fifty-one, famous for her novels, short stories and anthologies of fairy tales from around the world. Imaginary Beasts has chosen three dramatizations from among a series of her radio plays. Two comprise their evening offerings and a third, a “family friendly” presentation of Carter’s PUSS IN BOOTS, (which I haven’t seen yet) plays matinees.
Of the two evening shows on the same bill, the first, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, is what you might call a stylized “horror” story with a twist, about women and their infinite attraction to wolves. Some of these beasts “slip through” the space-time dimension when the solstice alters the moon and the tides are pulled backwards. You may not recognize them because their fur grows not on the outside but on the inside. (Only a mono-brow distinguishes them from ordinary men!) Some are classic werewolves and some, like Little Red Riding Hood’s nemesis, just need a woman’s touch.
Lovely stomping, clapping, jumping choreography by Kiki Samko has the villagers dancing a reel, unaware of the shadows surrounding their exuberant celebration. Director Matthew Woods and company have found a delightful, inventive theatrical “language” with which to tell a story. Two actors, back to back, lock arms to become a four legged creature. Another becomes a ticking clock with outstretched arms for the hands. (A swinging pendulum is supplied by another.) Two more position themselves so that we see only the isolated head of one and just the body of the other, to add up to one “headless horseman” of a corpse.
Woods has gathered an incomparable troupe of actors to inhabit both animate and inanimate roles. Lorna Nogueira is wonderful as the eccentric granny whose wolf tales become more and more lurid as the play goes on… creating an otherworldly, ethereal atmosphere, as if a fog were surrounding the stage. Erin Butcher is spellbinding as Little Red, the strange child who knows no fear. Michael Underhill’s wolf certainly has met his match. Likewise William Schuller and Poormina Kirby as a hairy handed gent and his unsuspecting wife. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES has a nifty feminist slant so that the women as well as the wolves, undergo a transformation, from victim to victor.
The piece de resistance, however, is the second play, VAMPIRELLA (Lady of the House of Love). Your breath will be taken away by the confluence of images in the play. From Joey Pelletier’s racing, tiptoeing, begging handed, lantern bearing Nosferatu (Woods pays tribute in VAMPIRELLA both to Murnau and to the original magic lantern “moving pictures”)… to Michael Underhill’s hilariously droll Brit peddling madly through the Carpathian mountains on a wild hula hoop bicycle….to Amy Meyer’s weightless, gravity defying form sliding down Dierdre Benson’s door-wall-platform-table-bed…to William Schuller’s taller-than-life Vlad, able to penetrate a castle wall at will…to Poormina Kirby’s helpless, blind bird, caged in Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s inverted hooped skirt armature (Talbot-Minkin’s costumes are extraordinary creations)…to Kamelia Aly’s bloodthirsty governess (Attend the tale of Sawney Beene!)....I could go on and on.
Woods’ savagely beautiful set design/direction (not to mention Sam Beebe’s haunting music and Chris Bocchiaro’s chiaroscuro lighting) makes you wonder how Carter’s gorgeous language (“corridors as circuitous as passages inside the ear”) could exist without the thrill of the Imaginary Beasts to make it soar. Miss HAIRY TALES at your peril.