THE BOY WHO KNEW NO FEAR
Skeleton Crew Theatre Company
at the Avenue Theatre
The Boy Who Knew No Fear, G. Riley Mills and Mark Levenson’s musical for children based on a particularly weird Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is bright and coherent, and it’s staged with plenty of energy and wit by the Skeleton Crew Theatre Company under the direction of Michael Weber. The two kids I went with loved it.
But in making the story agreeable to children, the authors and director have compromised its dark and somewhat disturbing thrust. They’ve sanitized it Disney-style, exploiting the plot while neglecting the deeper meaning.
In the Grimm tale, The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers, a father has two sons. The older boy is bright and capable but plagued by fears. The younger is too stupid to be afraid of anything. When asked by the father what he wants to do in life, the younger son says he just wants to find out what it’s like to “get the shivers.” The fact that the boy cannot experience fear angers the father, who knows that fear is the primary tool used by parents to socialize their children. He throws the boy out, shouting, “With you I’ll never have anything but trouble.”
Most of the boy’s adventures show him attempting to grapple symbolically with his awakening sexuality: he clips the nails of two menacing cats that try to snuggle up to him around a fire and lure him into a game of cards, and later he brings a corpse into bed with him, hoping to warm the icy body. (The body comes to life and threatens to strangle the boy, but even this fails to scare him.) Eventually his fearlessness helps him vanquish the evil spirits in a haunted castle and earn the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage.
Most of the menacing or erotic subtext is absent from the Skeleton Crew production. The father of the two boys is loving and patient with both of his sons, and not the least bit threatened by the younger boy’s immunity to intimidation. When the younger son, Rodney, complains that he doesn’t know what it feels like to “shudder,” the father responds with the concern of a parent whose child has some sort of neurological deficit. He gives Rodney 50 “talers” and sends him off into the scary world to experience fear. As he goes, Rodney sings about his quest: “I’m actually on my way to being afraid. . . . If everyone can do it, there must be nothing to it.”
Rodney’s adventures, however, are completely innocuous. On the road, he encounters a skunk and a lion so cute and unthreatening they could get jobs at Disney World. At the gallows, there’s only a lone noose, not the seven corpses the boy in the story finds dangling over his head. And in the haunted castle, Rodney finds the king’s daughter held captive by an evil witch named Grimmeldine, a stock character introduced by the playwright to scare the kids in the audience–but just a little bit.
All this provides for some lively stage action, enhanced by the eight songs Levenson has composed. And the cast members make good use of the script’s potential. As Rodney, Darren Bochat retains a deadpan expression as he dispatches one character after another. Karen Coover is a charming Princess Karina, and Jill Anderson’s wonderful hamming makes Grimmeldine, the evil witch, memorable to children and adults alike.
Still, something significant has been lost in this adaptation. Fairy tales don’t have to be treated as sacred text, with each word inviolable; the Brothers Grimm themselves merely recorded the prevailing versions of age-old stories. But any adaptation should try to preserve the essence of a tale. This adaptation reduces an imposing fairy tale to a banal, cartoonish amusement.