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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 319-320
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In the two centuries since the Grimm brothers collected and published the folk tales that eighteenth-century parents told their children at bedtime, there has been a sea of change in their tone and content. The tales we tell our kids today repress even further the violence and latent sexual threat of their earlier versions, and the cultural imperative to provide our children with narratives that offer solace and reassurance keeps many of these stories, which end in heartbreak and death, out of circulation. Lookingglass Theatre's The Secret in the Wings stages six of the darkest and least known of Grimm's tales, and in the retelling demonstrates just what a loss to our collective cultural memory and psyche the neglect of such stories may be. These stories were never only for kids, but they have an enhanced potency for young children still at that developmental stage where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are permeable and fluid. The magic of The Secret in the Wings lies in its ability to catapult us back into that psychic space of childhood, where bundles of twigs are babies, a spilled bucket of sand and toy soldiers is the mayhem of war, snakes have supernatural healing powers, and hearing a story and being part of it are one and the same thing.
The opening sequence of The Secret in the Wings masterfully reconnects its (mainly) adult audience with that space, invoking the power of language and imagination to conjur enchantment and fear. Little Heidi (Heidi Stillman) is having a bad night. It has just started to thunder and lightning, Mom and Dad are going out to a fancy party—again—and to make matters much, much worse, they are leaving her in the care of Mr. Fitzpatrick from next door. Heidi cannot believe it: "But he's an ogre. He has a tail!" "Don't be ridiculous," Dad says, and offers her the rose he has just plucked from Mr. Fitzpatrick's garden—an ominous allusion to the tale of Beauty and the Beast, in which the father's theft of a rose leads to the daughter's imprisonment in the Beast's castle. Just then, Mr. Fitzpatrick (Archie Bunker lookalike Tony Fitzpatrick) descends the stairs in his underwear, unshaven, potbellied, tattooed, smoking a butt, and dragging a long lizard's tail behind him. Like typical parents of storyland, Mom and Dad are oblivious to the danger of the situation. They breeze cheerily off to their soiree, leaving Heidi clutching her security blanket and cowering before her nightmare babysitter. Although Mr. Fitzpatrick's "tail" turns out—to a burst of laughter from the audience—to be a "tale," Heidi's fears are not entirely ungrounded, for as the evening reveals, the stories which form our collective cosmology are in many ways as threatening as the characters in them. The clever word and image play of this scene remind us of the extent to which puns work to express the subconscious: Mr. Fitzpatrick's possession of a tale—the adult mastery of language and narrative which, if we believe Lacan, is linked to phallic power—is transformed by the child's imagination into a tail, a direct sign of phallic potency, grotesque beastliness, and—true to the subtext of so many folktales—sexual threat.
The deep playfulness of that opening sequence flavors the entire production, from its most gruesome to its most comic moments. Zimmerman and her nine member ensemble repeatedly make theatrical magic happen with the simplest of objects and actions. We see just how evil the nursemaid who banishes the"Three Blind Queens" truly is when she eats their eyes (hard-boiled eggs); the queens then act out the rest of their story (which involves being driven to cannibalizing their own children) blindfolded. In the hilarious "The Princess Who Wouldn't Laugh" those unlucky suitors who fail to arouse a chuckle out of the pouty Princess (Louise Lamson) are promptly "beheaded" (a cone...