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(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

photo caption:
GHOSTLY VISITATION: Family dinner is interrupted by the mysterious return of a deceased daughter seeking atonement in one of the fairy tales in Mary Zimmermanıs 'The Secret in the Wings,' playing at McCarterıs Berlind Theatre through February 13.
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Mary Zimmerman Journeys to the Dark Side of Fairy Tales In Evocative Production of "Secret in the Wings" at McCarter

Donald Gilpin

As a child I wanted to invent a machine that could record my dreams so I could watch them in the morning," Mary Zimmerman recalls. "Theater is that machine. I can make these images come to life and actually walk around inside them for a while." The Secret in the Wings, which opened last week at McCarter's Berlind Theatre, is Ms. Zimmerman's vehicle for bringing to life the dark, mysterious, and endlessly evocative world of dreams and fairy tales. And the characters who walk around inside her world are the creatures of childhood tales: beauties and beasts, wicked stepmothers and stern fathers, kings and queens, princes and princesses, snakes, swans, and treacherous villains.

Presented collage-fashion, the six fairy tales here do eventually resolve themselves, more or less happily, but along the way the journey is often violent and ugly. Except for the framing story, a spin on "Beauty and the Beast," the tales – The Three Blind Queens, The Princess Who Wouldn't Laugh, The Princess By the Sea, Allerleirah and Silent for Seven Years – may not be familiar, but the customary and enticing fairy-tale fare includes family dysfunctions, incest, infanticide, infidelities, child abuse, betrayals, and brutal murders.

The world of the tales of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm comes to life on stage, but this is also the world of Sigmund Freud's repressed emotions and interpretation of dreams and Carl Jung's collective unconscious. It is the world explored by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) and by Stephen Sondheim in Into the Woods (1987), his dark fairy tale Broadway musical.

The tales themselves are richly engaging and thought-provoking, and Ms. Zimmerman, 2002 Tony Award winner for her direction of Metamorphoses and director of a luminous production of The Odyssey at McCarter four years ago, stages them with humor, whimsy, poignancy and astonishing creativity.

The setting, designed by Daniel Ostling, is a cavernous basement that fills the Berlind stage and creates the appropriately spooky and mysterious landscape. There are hidden recesses and dark corners upstage with a small door that opens, only three times, to the blinding light of some other world. A long staircase on stage left leads to a small upstairs sitting room and exit. A magical wardrobe stands upstage right. Three somewhat incongruous standing lamps are moved around to help illuminate the action on the vast basement floor. The sound design – a mélange of voices, whisperings, chimes, and other noises, along with original music created by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman; eerie, shadowy lighting effects by T.J. Gerckens; and inventive costuming by Mara Blumenfeld, (with frequent fast changes for the nine ensemble members) also contribute richly to the creation of the spellbinding world of this play.

This is the basement of her parents' house where little Heidi (Tiffany Scott) is left with the ogre babysitter Mr. Donahue (Christopher Donahue) in the opening scene. The menacing Mr. Donahue, looking like a reprobate slasher, has a tail (long and lizard-like dragging behind him) and a tale (from a large book he carries with him). After their first exchange – "Heidi, will you marry me?" "No, Mr. Donahue, I won't." – which they repeat during each transition between tales, Mr. Donahue settles in to begin reading the tale of The Three Blind Queens.

The five men and four women of the capable ensemble share equally in the narration and performance of the stories, making age and character stretches and, when necessary, crossing gender barriers with skill and conviction.

Each of the first four stories proceeds to a climactic moment and then stops: 1) The queens, with their husbands away at war, are blinded, at the command of the power-hungry nursemaid, exiled and left with their babies to starve. 2) The princess's three suitors pull out their best comedy routines, fail and are beheaded – she still hasn't laughed. 3) The young husband accompanies, as promised, his dead princess bride to her tomb; he is desperate and hoping for a life-saving miracle in the visitation of two peculiar white snakes. 4) The widower king falls in love with his daughter – "Little Allerleirah, you were noticed too soon." – who, in a snowstorm, escapes into a forest of ominous tree-men.

The fifth story, however, which provides the centerpiece and the title for the whole play, proceeds to its conclusion uninterrupted, before the previous tales are quickly resolved in the final half hour of this 85-minute production. This central tale, Silent for Seven Years, is the story of a father's curse on his boisterous, unruly sons – "I wish all my sons were swans" (Be careful what you wish for!) – and their sister's dedicated, self-sacrificing quest to lift the curse and bring her brothers back to human life.

The tales are fascinating, and there are no weak links in this experienced, thoroughly professional ensemble: Mark Alhadeff, Laura Eason, Anne Fogarty, Raymond Fox, Louise Lamson, Erik Lochtefeld and Philip R. Smith, in addition to Mr. Donahue and Ms. Scott. The fragmentation of the stories and the extensive array of characters and plots will cause some confusion for audiences as they try to piece together the six different plot threads. Also, missing here, of course, is the satisfaction of a unified narration rising to a climax then resolving itself in a logical denouement. The pleasures of this abundant array of fascinating tales, however, and the thrill of getting a little lost in the woods and struggling to find our bearings and make sense of it all, should more than compensate for the frustrations of this multi-dimensional work.

In a style reminiscent of her brilliant staging of the stories of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Ms. Zimmerman brings together the disparate material with compelling style and integrity. The members of the design team and all but one member of the ensemble have worked extensively with Ms. Zimmerman in the past, most frequently at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. Their close, finely tuned collaboration is apparent in every facet of this polished production.

The Secret in the Wings has been produced by McCarter in conjunction with Lookingglass Theatre (which first presented the play in 1991), as well as Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it received much acclaim last September and October, and Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it will play from February 26 to March 26.

Ms. Zimmerman's journey takes its audiences deep into the world of dreams, childhood, and the human psyche, revealing truths beneath the disguises and warning us, "Do not trust your eyes."

The Secret in the Wings plays at McCarter's Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton through February 13. For reservations and further information call (609) 2582787 or visit www.mccarter.org.



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