Friday, December 16, 2011

SNOW WHITE


Gracie White as Snow White, Ashley Handel, and Laura Careless as the Evil Queen

Photo: Steven Schreiber

With two big-budget Snow White films coming out in 2012, the porcelain-faced ingénue seems poised to become the queen of the fairytale princess set. Yet, it seems unfathomable that either of Hollywood’s versions could surpass the sweetness and magic of watching Company XIV’s current revival of their 2009 production of Snow White. The spare set (designed by Zane Pihlstrom) insinuates the familiar setting: a forest (a gilded tree where the branches suspend from wires never fully attaching to the trunk) and a castle (marked by twin crystal chandeliers). But this telling of the story offers no singing dwarves. Instead, Snow White (Gracie White) lives in a world where she’s part circus performer and the Evil Queen (Laura Careless) morphs into a dancer, equally able in ballet, Russian Folk, or ballroom.

Conceived, directed and choreographed by the company founder Austin McCormick, a 2006 Juilliard graduate, with new text by Jeff Takacs (who moonlights as the MC/Narrator and Huntsman), the show combines a collection of genres, including Cirque du Soleil like acts, with dance, video, and a song catalog containing everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Vivaldi to The Rolling Stones. Yet, the myriad of styles never overwhelms; each segment eases into another. Our heroine, Snow White, more naïf here than fool, impresses with her athleticism and the ease that she rests in the circle of her protective tree even as she gullibly accepts the Evil Queen’s disguises despite multiple assignation attempts. As in the Grimm telling of the tale, Snow White’s stepmother anoints the girl as the provocateur of her distress after the magic mirror declares the child rather than herself as “fairest in the land.” The Evil Queen asks a huntsman to kill the beautiful princess and, like the familiar story, he cannot. A terrified Snow White runs through the woods—as snowflakes fall, long white ribbons release from the ceiling and Sam Hilbelink, a performer from Circus Juventas (the show features several members, including Snow White and the Prince) wrestles, twists and spins in its lengths as he embodies the storm. Snow White joins him briefly as she’s caught up in the tempest, finally sliding down the cloth’s widths onto the ground.

Here, the narrative deviates from the one we all know, and Snow White becomes a forest nymph, sitting cross-legged in a suspended circle that serves as an extension of the tree. The Evil Queen discovers the Huntsman’s double-crossing and sets off to do her own dirty work. Three times she tempts Snow White with items that could potentially kill her; each sequence feels like a ride on Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World,” with nationality specific inspired-production numbers, including one where the Evil Queen and her henchmen visit as part of a Parisian Clothier cart, clad like can-can dancers in a Baz Luhrmann film.

The costumes (Olivera Gajic), while visually stimulating with their emphasis on red, black, and white, lean toward the dominatrix side and mix black leather bustiers with high heels—for both the women and the men. In a rare dissolution of the fourth wall, costume racks sit in view of the audience, just behind the seating—and one can occasionally see actors seeking their next outfit. This adds an unexpected intimacy to the production and when Snow White skips guilelessly across the facility to reach her perch at the end of intermission, you don’t miss the signaling of a second act with the rise of a lush velvet curtain at all.

Snow White’s main flaw still resides in the character herself. Rather than learning from her lessons, Snow White repeatedly trusts the strange visitors in her woods, requiring saving from various forest friends (shown through inventive lighting and projection by Gina Scherr and Corey Tatarczuk) and finally the Prince (Joseph McEachern). Still, White manages to infuse wariness in her expression as Slavic Folk Dancers tempt her with their frolicking movements and glowingly red apples (Wait, hasn’t she been here before?) before succumbing to their charms—at least, here, she shows a slow recognition to the dangers that walk in the world. Careless plays the Evil Queen as a deliciously vain, self-indulgent bully who pushes and mocks those that serve her, while still showing vulnerability as the Queen sobs brokenly on the floor when Snow White’s beauty triumphs her own.

While, most of the circus tricks thrill, occasionally, the awkwardness of setting up a balancing act interrupts the beauty of the moment. For instance, when the Prince spies a poisoned Snow White, inert in her tree, he precariously climbs into her circle with more exertion than the dreamlike seamlessness expected. This dissipates as soon as he settles in, kisses her gently and they both ease from the perch—once more returning you to this magical version of Snow White.

The show runs from December 2 to January at the 303 Bond Street Theatre (303 Bond St.) in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. (General seating, press tickets)

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