Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Handless Maiden"

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"The Handless Maiden"

by Jeremy Dobrish
Music and Lyrics by Michael Garin
Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques

Set Design by Chrissy Duarte
Costumes by Joe Chittkusol, Ellen Boyle, Eileen Barker, Katy Lipe
Lighting Design by Emily Culver
Sound Design by Brad Dardaganian and David Lopez
Stage Manager Chrissy Duarte

Anne.......................Cheryl D. Singleton
Dave/Devil........................John Herring
Eric..............................James McLean
Julie/Merlin/Bartender/Croney.....Emily Culver
Miller's Wife/Messenger/Tree....Nancy Stillman
Miller/Moe.....................Henry Balzarini
Maiden/Lisa.......................Vanessa Romo
Peter/King.....................Joshua Callahan
Max/Gardener.......................Doug Halsey

Danielle Fauteux Jacques, Artistic Director of TheatreZone has developed a recognizable style and though in the past she has used some stand-out excellent performers, the cast she has assembled for "The Handless Maiden" at Actors' Workshop is the best, as a group, I have seen her work with. The play itself, by Jeremy Dobrish, is a sprawling, many-levelled mixture of contemporary social comedy, fairy-tale, and send-up that has actors doubling and even quadrupling roles, so the quality of the cast is the deciding factor in the show's success.

The play's brief scenes introduce two couples --- marrieds in New York, about-to-be-marrieds in Seattle --- approaching crisis-time. Cheryl D. Singleton plays Anne, a woman offered partnership, over her husband, at the law-firm where they both work, but at a time when what she wants is so ill-defined she runs off on a romantic quest to try to experience the dream house Bill Gates is building on the west coast. James McLean is Eric, a loving but overbearing fiance jilting his bride at the altar to whiz to New York to find his gay ex-lover. And of course they cross paths at Flo & Moe's Diner & Motel on the banks of the Mississippi. Their working out their very different romantic dilemmas on opposite sides of the continent --- with repeated meeting's at Flo & Moe's --- is the major thread of the play.

But that's the reality level. On the fairytale level, John Herring who plays Anne's uptight hubby emerges in a flame-red union-suit complete with forked tail and horns to do a riotous job as the Prince of Lawyers tricking a poor miller into selling his virtuous daughter for wealth. It's a pleasure though to see old Scratch pained and helpless before the daughter's innocent tears. Instead, Vanessa Romo has her hands cut off (Don't worry; they grow back. This IS a fairytale!) and marries the king because ... well, because.

Joshua Callahan's king is solidly, presentationally solid, with one magnificent touch: at the end of every line (about his precious peach-tree) in his first scene, he bites --- and Doug Halsey as his grovelling gardener manages, without even looking, to have a peach appear exactly where his king chomps, so that he needn't move a muscle except his jaw. They must have practiced for weeks to time it so perfectly.

Callahan doubles as Eric's stonily vindictive ex-lover, of course, with Ramos reappearing briefly as his fiancee. Meanwhile, Halsey is Anne's dream come true: a carpenter who can get her into the Gates house, but falls in love with her and expects thewir relationship to be permanent. Eventually, Eric, Anne, and the carpenter fetch up at Flo & Moe's for the grand finale --- with the king and the re-handed maiden wandering in as well, and the messenger and Julie too.

I forgot Julie and the messenger! Well, Emily Culver's Julie is that jilted Eric jilted in the first act --- but she's also the bartender that hooks Anne up with her carpenter, and Merlin the king's adviser, and even the king's queen mum. Her wordless despair in a spotlight and a wedding-dress reading Eric's Dear Julie letter is a stunning tour de force, and every new role is distinct and complete.

Nancy Stillman and Henry Balzarini are the miller and the miller's wife, but Stillman carries messages that the devil tries to rewrite --- and she does a stand-on as the king's beloved peach- tree. She is the only always doing fairy-tale roles, for Balzarini is also Moe, the short-order cook and marriage-counseller at Flo & Moe's crossroads cafe.

This show has all the strengths TheatreZone has demonstrated in the past, and some of its shortcomings as well. It's a fresh new script, but like a lot of new plays there's a feeling of movie about its lightning switches of realistic setting --- and Caroline Kaneshiro's set designs, rather than solving that problem, opted for lugubrious set-changes that slowed the action.

For the most part, the fantasy scenes were either done flatly dead-pan, or with excellently timed send-up commentary. Josh Callahan's king and John Herring's devil excellently demonstrate those two approaches. However, the miller and wife have no quips, and Stillman and Balzarini while pretending to be cardboard characters looked amateurish rather than stylized. Even Balzarini's Moe, who always has a foot in both worlds, looked tentative and shrinking. I suspect that if the director asked these actors for more solid honestly, it would be a better play.

On opening night, there were a couple muffed lines, and after a long and complicated play the cast appeared to have run out of steam, so that they hadn't the energy to punch through all that sorting-out before their much-deserved curtain-calls. But those sort of things improve during performance. Certainly the short realistic scenes were sincerely and effectively played, and the by-play between realistic and romantic worlds, especially in a little last-minute lecture from the king, hit home. It's a pleasure to see the TheatreZone director working with the cast she deserves.


"The Handless Maiden" (till 27 September)
Actors' Workshop, 40 Boylston Street, BOSTON

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