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Tales from the imaginary past

Al Schnupp's Merriwinkle brings a ragtag collection of world folktales to the stage

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Al Schnupp has read around 1,000 fairytales. They’re all stored up in his brain somewhere, a mad, hopping trove of distressed damsels, heartless giants, and bloodthirsty monarchs. But of that teeming multitude of tall tales, the Cal Poly theater instructor, director, and playwright has selected a mere eight and given them new life in his current production, which goes by the catchy handle The Merriwinkle International Troupe of Vagabonds Performs a Delicious Potpourri of Fantastical Fairy Tales and Astonishing Folk Legends. A troupe of hardworking actors, a puppeteer (Lauren Johnson), and a sound effects artist (Jack Adams) perform vignettes adapted from the folktales of Norway, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, and Persia. The show, which kicks off the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department’s season offerings, opens Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Spanos Theatre.

- YARNSPINNERS :  Merriwinkle, director and playwright Al Schnupp’s adaptation of eight fairy tales, is a family-friendly show with ageless charisma. -  - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY THEATRE AND DANCE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY THEATRE AND DANCE
  • YARNSPINNERS : Merriwinkle, director and playwright Al Schnupp’s adaptation of eight fairy tales, is a family-friendly show with ageless charisma.

While a family friendly production—a term that usually sends this writer running in the opposite direction, trying not to barf—Merriwinkle possesses a special charisma. This is in part due to a versatile cast, and to Schnupp’s inimitable sense of humor and style. The core of the show’s success, though, is the universality of these eight enduring stories that know no authors, but were rather forged in the recesses of collective humanness and whispered across the centuries, their details finely chiseled by myriad folksy tongues.

There’s “Luciano,” the story of a man who couldn’t stop duping his friends, and, when the duping had been found out, proceeded to dupe them further to cover his previous dupes. The moral isn’t that deceiving one’s countrymen is wrong. On the contrary—deception can be hilarious fun! An art, even. Gullibility seems to be the real crime.

Ryan Austin, one of the show’s most versatile character actors, portrays Luciano, the man who sold his friends a mule that, he claimed, shat gold coins. The disgruntled men, upon discovering Luciano’s deception, are about to skewer him with a pitchfork. But Luciano and his accommodating wife, Loretta (Juliet Knox), cleverly divert them by selling them further household commodities projecting illusions of supernatural powers, and at the end—which I shan’t give away!—it’s the consumers, and not the sellers, who are punished for their idiocy.

In many fairytales, female characters tend to be little more than human prizes to reward male characters’ bravery, which is what makes a vignette like “Clever Catherine” so refreshing. Played by a beatific Jaide Whitman, Catherine is a lowly peasant girl, until word of her cleverness reaches the ears of the king (Alex Haughton), who roars something along the lines of, “A woman this clever must be my bride!”

Once Catherine is made queen, however, her formidable intelligence gets her in trouble, as formidable intelligence often does. Well, you’ll see.

“A Most Agreeable Wife” is perhaps the only fable among these eight of which I can’t see the point. It’s the story of a man whose wife is so predictably agreeable that he gets away with trading their cow for, essentially, a single lunch (which he eats on the way home, so now he is coming back empty-handed). And he does this just to make a point—and a buck—because, knowing her reaction will be nothing but sweetness and understanding, he has placed a bet on it with his friend, who is hiding outside their home, listening. So he wins some money because she was agreeable. Good job, wife! Keep being an airhead; we’ll make a killing! Ack.

The fable is told, fittingly perhaps, with marionettes—which are a delight to watch. (San Jose puppeteer Judy Roberto provided the company with training in this delicate art.)

Each vignette clocks in at around 10 minutes, making this show perfect for wee playgoers, or adults with limited attention spans. Schnupp, who developed his adaptation partly while teaching a class in performing folk tales, has also given each vignette its own unique flavor and tone. “The Scrawny Old Couple” is entirely told with shadow puppets, whose eerie silhouettes cast a rather Tim Burton-esque spell over the story of a miserly, screeching old couple who slowly devolved into monkeys.

“Slick and Sly,” the tale of two ambitious pickpockets who joined forces (played by Ryan Austin and Tommy Booth, in their element), is one of the play’s most entertaining. “If you’re going to steal, don’t get caught,” this fable seems to tell us, winking devilishly.

- VAGRANTS AND VAGABONDS:  The Merriwinkle International Troupe of Vagabonds Performs a Delicious Potpourri of Fantastical Fairy Tales and Astonishing Folk Legends takes the stage at the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre on the Cal Poly campus Nov. 10 to 12 and 17 to 19 at 7 p.m. General admission is $15; students, seniors, and kids pay $12. Visit pacslo.org or call 756-2787 for reservations. -
  • VAGRANTS AND VAGABONDS: The Merriwinkle International Troupe of Vagabonds Performs a Delicious Potpourri of Fantastical Fairy Tales and Astonishing Folk Legends takes the stage at the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre on the Cal Poly campus Nov. 10 to 12 and 17 to 19 at 7 p.m. General admission is $15; students, seniors, and kids pay $12. Visit pacslo.org or call 756-2787 for reservations.

The aforementioned noise-maker Adams is a comical sight, sitting as he does in one corner of the stage, surrounded by odd things from which he creates a variety of wonderfully analog sound effects.

Costume designer Thomas Bernard and his crew have created a wardrobe best described as that of a very colorful (and remarkably clean) vagabond. References to Gypsies and medieval peasants are present, but rather than evoke any specific time period, the show’s attire remains purposefully ambiguous. It’s the kind of thing you would only see in a storybook set in an imaginary place and time. It’s what children imagine people wearing in The Olden Days.

A set bedecked with turrets and seemingly riddled with trapdoors and secret passageways houses the lovely illusion.

But the reason Merriwinkle works is that its characters are ageless. In the titular antagonist in “The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs,” we glimpse, perhaps, a prototype of the bro. In Luciano, an account executive. And in Catherine, an inconveniently clever first lady.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner is an inconveniently clever writer. Attempt to match wits at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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