When Heidi is told by her parents, who are about to go out for dinner with friends, that they have asked their neighbor Mr. Donahue to baby-sit, she almost has a fit. Content with playing alone in the spacious dimly lit basement of their large home, she tries to explain to them that she is afraid of Mr. Donahue, whom she insists is an ogre and has a long tail. Her parents dismiss her fears as foolish, just as Mr. Donahue comes slowly down the steep stairs carrying a large book, his scruffy beard and slightly hunched back no less frightening a sight than the long prominent tail that whips along behind him. The parents, of course, don’t see the tail and depart. Despite making some incomprehensible growling sounds, Mr. Donahue slowly takes a seat in an easy chair and begins to read a fairy tale.and things begin to happen.
Those who have seen Chicago-based adaptor/director Mary Zimmerman’s funnily fantastical "The Odyssey" at the McCarter Theater will undoubtedly be eager to see "The Secret in the Wings," another imagination-propelled journey into the rare and magical. It unfolds like a marvelously fractured dream, full of the unexpected and the unsuspected. But make no mistake about it, Zimmerman’s dramatized fairy tales are for adults, a mature and provocative exploration of how and perhaps why the fears and insecurities of a child are manifest through casual wishes and even deeper desires. This is a co-production of McCarter, the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and the Seattle Repertory Theater (where it will travel next). "The Secret in the Wings" had its premiere in 2003 at Chicago’s Lookingglass (where Zimmerman is a member of the ensemble).
Although many of Zimmerman’s theatrical pieces, such as "The Arabian Nights" and "The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci," and the Philip Glass opera "Galileo Galilei," have been popular at regional theaters and off-Broadway, and lauded for their unique and extraordinary vision, it was the myths-propelled "Metamorphosis," for which she won the 2002 Tony Award that essentially validated her as a world-class theater artist.
The canon of fairy tales, particularly those written by the brothers Grimm, have continued to intrigue scholars and psychoanalysts (notably Jung and Freud) over the years, and have been the focus of many studies, disciplines, and perspectives. A conceptual dramatic artist, Zimmerman, uses her flair for the macabre and her interest in classical literature to weave together some lesser known fairy tales. She has filtered them from the perspective of a precocious child, evidently in the throes of social and sexual awakening.
Through the course of its 90 minutes, "Secret in the Wings" unfolds as numerous tales – each one getting pushed out of the way at a climactic point, yet eventually coming back at the end for a resolve. Zimmerman and her nine-member company have created a totally mesmerizing, if only occasionally confusing, dreamscape where kings and queens, princesses and princes, commoners and others are transformed and reformed, seek revenge and forgiveness, die and come back to life and love and hate within the perimeters of a child’s darkest thoughts. Framed by the best known fairy tale of "Beauty and the Beast" are "Silent for Seven Years," Three Blind Queens, "Allerleirah," and The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh." Great charm and wry attitudes define the unpretentious dancing, the graceful movement, and the wonderfully eccentric narrative, much of which is enhanced by the sounds and original music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman.
Laughs are generated by "The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh," during which we see to what comedic lengths three suitors will go to win the princess’s hand in marriage. The contest allows each suitor to perform a brief standup comedy routine. As each inevitably fails miserably to get the princess to laugh, he has his head chopped off, and yes, they roll across the stage. On an even more unsettling note is the story of "Allerleirah," in which incest is clearly a theme. In "Silent for Seven Years," a stern father berates his eight children, seven sons and one daughter, for playing noisily and disturbing him. This cautionary tale of wish fulfillment finds the sons turned into swans and a daughter forbidden to speak for seven years. Between stories, Mr. Donahue continues to ask, "Heidi will you marry me?" She continues to answer, "No, Mr. Donahue, I won’t." With that, he begins another story.
Set designer Daniel Ostling has created a spooky looking old house with a full view of the large basement, its creepy corners and cabinets, scattered floor lamps, an old coal bin, and perilous-looking stairway leading to the upper floor and side lofts. The costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld are a witty blending of vintage formal wear and little girl dress up. It takes only a short time to figure out the key to this enigmatic play. I won’t be spoiling the surprise ending if I tell you that "The Secret in the Wings" may reside within the dark recesses of your mind.
"The Secret in the Wings", through Sunday, February 13, the Berlind Theater at McCarter, University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.