Lookingglass Theatre Company

at Chicago Filmmakers

You don’t really need characters to tell a story. Oh, you need someone to carry out the action, someone to kill the dragon or steal the secret formula, someone to live happily ever after or get run over by a truck. But this character business–the motivation, the psychology, the three-dimensionality–that’s just modern, Western habit, a trick we’ve gotten so good at that we tend to make it the centerpiece of story telling: plot arises out of character; character is elucidated by plot. It’s the rule, the most important rule.

Which isn’t to say we haven’t seen it broken time and time again. Oedipus isn’t a character in that modern sense. Neither is Robin Hood or Cinderella or even King Arthur before Tennyson got his hands on him. They all have traits; they all wear a human face. But that seamless link of incident and inner life–that has nothing to do with them.

At least not on the printed page. Written down, fairy tales, medieval romances, traditional narratives of all sorts have the same feel–flattened, opaque, and almost indecently direct. Translate those same stories to the screen or stage, and the feel is lost. You get Errol Flynn, or Disney, or Camelot. It seems inevitable: commit yourself to the idea of a story presented by actors and you’re committed to the notion of character. What’s the alternative?

A fascinating answer is on view at Lookingglass Theatre, where Mary Zimmerman is directing The Secret in the Wings, her own adaptation of four traditional fairy tales.

Lookingglass Theatre’s reputation is for a highly physical kind of ensemble work, and The Secret in the Wings is no exception. The production is minimalist and inventive. Thrift-shop lamps carve out zones of light and dark on the huge stage. There are a few chairs, a few gowns, a few handsome, imaginative crowns for the princes and princesses. The rest is gesture, movement, and narration.

And repetition. This isn’t one of those Grimm adaptations that fleshes out the tale with new incident and dialogue. Zimmerman sticks close to the originals–strips them down, even–and when she fleshes them out it’s with, well, more of the same. An example: Three princes, in the opening moments of “Three Blind Queens,” recite their life in chorus–“getting up in the morning and greeting the day, shaking hands and combing their hair, looking at things and looking away.” But the needle sticks, the princes start repeating themselves, and deja vu sets in.

The plot lies elsewhere–in a seemingly endless war and the exile of the princes’ brides–but in Zimmerman’s vision, mere recurrence has a power all its own. The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh has her suitors beheaded in ceaseless procession. The princess cursed to seven years of silence loses child after child to her relentless mother-in-law. And Allerleirah, the image of her dead mother, is courted by a father who somehow cannot realize that life has gone on.

Everything is presented with real theatrical flair: The suitors are loathsomely conventional entertainers (my favorite mimics a nature film on lizards with startling accuracy). Their beheadings (a gag with traffic cones and rubber balls) are hilarious. Tales are narrated in chorus, or sung to stripped-down melodies composed by Eric Huffman. There’s even a hopscotching chorus of girls to chant the grim plot of “Allerleirah.” “Silent for Seven Years” is played out as a long pantomime almost balletic in complexity. It’s all impressive, and well-paced. The actors (who aren’t identified by role in the program) are uniformly skillful and attentive.

Attention is particularly important here, because as I said, there are no “characters” as such. The actors don’t have to reveal motivation or hidden depth. Indeed, that’s contrary to the spirit of the show. We’re not here to see fairy tales familiarized into human dramas but to see them in all their alienness and incomprehensibility. There are a few attempts to highlight themes–especially themes of parental abuse–and the evening has a frame story, a cute variation on “Beauty and the Beast” involving a little girl and an ogre baby-sitter, that twists neatly at the end in what looks like an effort to make a point. But really, there is no point. There’s just texture.

And what do the actors do meanwhile? They react. It’s quite a striking effect. In the climax of “Silent for Seven Years,” for instance, seven children, transformed into swans, fly desperately to their sister, who will restore them to their proper forms. Onstage we see a circle of actors, each frantically flapping a necktie to create the sound of wings. Their concentration is furious, their faces fixed in the effort of executing a theatrical moment. We don’t see a representation of the inner state of a boy/swan; we see the reality of an actor focusing on the presentation of story, devoid of character. It’s terrific. I’m glad I saw it.

But take by way of comparison another show that weaves together fairy tales–Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Cinderella and Red Riding Hood talk like refugees from group therapy; their tales are reduced to fables of neuroticism and 20th-century angst. You can make the case that this is a dreadful show–tasteless, banal, stupidly cavalier with its material. And the show’s big gimmick–that it sticks with its tales beyond happily ever after? A dud of an idea if there ever was one.

As I say, you can make that case. But it misses the point. Sure, Into the Woods is tasteless and obvious, but it’s also moving and humane and true. It speaks to the heart. Sondheim seems not to care about his silly premise; he cares about the language it liberates him to use, the points it lets him make about hope and uncertainty.

The Secret in the Wings is just the opposite. It’s tasteful and smart and it respects the mystery at the heart of the tales it tells. And as a result it has fairly little to say that the tales haven’t already told us a hundred times before. There’s a lovely tone here, a sense of control and passionate artistry. But this is not a show that speaks to the heart.

Which isn’t to say it fails. The Secret in the Wings is a resounding success–but what it succeeds at is rather small and academic. We come away knowing something new about the capabilities of the stage and of Mary Zimmerman and her nine talented actors. Is that enough? You pays your money, you takes your choice.