Happily Ever After
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 22, 2011
Happily Ever After. It ends almost every fairy tale we've ever heard. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White: they all live "happily ever after." But do they? As the "character" of Hansel says in Sundown Collaborative Theatre's gruesomely twisted 2011 FringeNYC offering Happily Ever After, we only have the word of the storyteller that things turn out ok. And in this production's case, things most definitely take a detour from ending "happily."
Tightly written and directed by Cody Lucas, Happily Ever After finds us trapped in the mind of a disturbed young boy, Jack. His father used to read him fairy tales every night before he slept—and he always fell asleep before even getting to the "happily ever after"—but something has obviously gone wrong for Jack along the way. He doesn't sleep very well anymore and seems to be imprisoned in a waking nightmare, where the fairy tales aren't so bright—and we are imprisoned right along with him. Our hosts for the evening are Jacob and Wilhelm, a dark, disconcerting vaudevillian duo who invite us to this gruesome circus of twisted fairy tales. Played sharply with a violent, volatile energy by Travis Stuebing and Zane Harris, Jacob and Wilhelm show off acts including an abused, hunchbacked Rumpelstiltskin force to wear an S&M style black leather mask, an impotent prince and a broken Rapunzel, and a dark dream ballet performed by Sleeping Beauty and Hansel. Each is tortured into doing these horrible performances and doomed to repeat them over and over in Jack's mind.
Happily Ever After feels as if it was ripped out of the darkest corners of film director Tim Burton's mind (and he is brilliant at creating the darkly off-beat). Lucas and his ensemble have created a detailed, beautifully horrible world; a twisted playground. The whole play is uncomfortable to watch but in a brilliant way. It's adorned with an eerie soundscape, created by the performers, through whispers, choral a cappella singing, and music of a xylophone and harpsichord, also played by the ensemble (this complements the show perfectly, as the xylophone gives a childish dreamlike feel, but the minor key of the music makes it feel like circus music from hell—a huge credit to composer and musical director Patrick Emile). George Ferrie's choreography is mesmerizing, sexy, and unsettling. It somehow accomplishes the feat of being simultaneously elegant and violent. Lucas's direction and the performances of the ensemble are highly stylized and crisp, and everyone one has immersed themselves completely in this highly effective style. Even their ending is abnormal, punctuating the feeling of the show perfectly: they take no curtain call, leaving the audience sitting in a slightly stunned silence, not quite sure how to react.
Sundown Collaborative Theatre hails from Denton, Texas, and strives to create a "visceral experience" to "provoke thought and incite discussion," and with Happily Ever After they hit their mark. It's a meticulously designed, full aural-visual experience and true ensemble theater. The multi-talented, malleable performers (with Stuebing and Harris, rounded out by Cody Lucas, Robert Linder, Tashina Richardson, Nick Ross, Olivia Emile, and Aaron Sanchez) deserve great credit for their dark, nuanced creation. Happily Ever After is like being trapped in an hour-long nightmare. The theatre guy in me wants to say that it was a "delightful" experience, but it's such a disturbing world that it seems wrong to say. But it's most definitely detailed, twisted, thought-provoking, and original; and, most importantly, a fantastic night of theater.