Thunder Road Ensemble

at Club Lower Links

Anne Sexton’s life was the opposite of a fairy tale, though in many ways she lived a life worthy of the Brothers Grimm, surviving childhood abuse, a diagnosis of hysteria, and multiple suicide attempts to become a sort of pop star. But as in the lives of the characters in her book Transformations, there was no happily ever after for Sexton. Her life was a tale in which the princess winds up taking her own life.

Transformations was Sexton’s cheekily nihilistic and cheerfully cynical 1971 take on the tales of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Snow White, and their comrades. In Sexton’s vision Snow White becomes a vain, vindictive creature much like the evil queen who condemned her to death. Mother Gothel, who kept Rapunzel locked up in a tower, ends as a tragically lonely and heartbroken old woman. And Sleeping Beauty’s story ends as she becomes an insomniac who cries out for her father to comfort her but instead is sexually abused. That Sexton committed suicide three years after the publication of Transformations gives the poems a particularly chilling and desperate edge.

Over the years we’ve been given an overdose of fairy-tale modernizations. Stephen Sondheim did his in the Broadway musical Into the Woods. Neil Jordan, in the film The Company of Wolves, turned “Little Red Riding Hood” into a horror story. Woody Allen gave us his take on “Snow White” in a brief segment in Annie Hall. And then there were the Walt Disney versions and some Bugs Bunny cartoons. Even Transformations was performed as an opera in the 70s. But Sexton’s deadpan wit and cunning sense of metaphor energize the tired genre. The seven dwarfs “wattle like small czars.” The prince who woos Rapunzel has “muscles on his arms like a bag of snakes,” and Hansel and Gretel sleep with “z’s buzzing out of their mouths like flies.”

Johannes Marlena calls his interpretation of Transformations for Thunder Road Ensemble an adaptation, but that’s rather generous. It’s more like a staged poetry reading with a few biographical details about Sexton’s life tossed in to relate her life to the lives of her characters. The biographical information is culled largely from Diane Middlebrook’s gossipy and occasionally trashy book.

Amy Eaton and Dana Worland, two talented actresses, take turns reciting Sexton’s works, stalking around the claustrophobic stage at Club Lower Links and striking theatrical poses. A couple of the poses–legs crossed, head tilted, cigarette poised like a poison dart gun–seem modeled after famous photos of Sexton. Later in the show a few stagy effects, such as candlelight and spooky sound effects, are used to add a bit of mood.

Two hours is a bit of a stretch for an evening of poetry, especially when many of the poems are delivered in very similar ways. Sexton’s joke lines in particular are frequently given the same “nudge nudge, wink wink” rhythm that seems to invite a ba-dum-dum-tch drum flourish. And the sight lines of Club Lower Links, reminiscent of those of the old Comiskey Park, force you to spend key dramatic moments staring at a post. Eaton and Worland are able to carry the weight of Sexton’s poems for a while, but midway through the second act the static staging and delivery gets repetitive. I began to hear metaphors similar to those I’d heard before and wished we could get a little break from the 12 fractured fairy tales, maybe hear a broader range of the poet’s work. Finally I was worn down by words rather than exhilarated by them.

This staged reading is a good introduction to Sexton’s work, but it never fully succeeds in bringing the words to life. The magic of Sexton’s poems is that they leap off the page and into reality. Thunder Road’s adaptation made me wish the words would jump out of reality and back onto the page, so I could read them at my own pace in private.