Thousand Thunder Words

at Angel Island

If ever there was a classic Russian children’s fable that should be assimilated into mainstream American kid culture, it’s Vassilisa the Wise, a refreshing tale of a young woman who rescues her husband from the royal dungeon by outwitting the prince’s soldiers, wrestler, marksman–even the prince himself. Modern feminists couldn’t present a stronger female role model than medieval Vassilisa, nor could they do it in such a charming, unself-conscious way.

The tales of Vassilisa date back nearly a thousand years and have been passed down orally in Russian households from generation to generation. In his adaptation Louis H. Anders III (author of The Raccoon Agenda and Joe’s Handy Guide to Revolution Made E-Z) mixes in some quirky contemporary references, adds a large portion of goofiness, and comes up with an entertaining and uplifting bit of theater for kids of all ages.

But Anders also directs the play, and that’s where the trouble begins. Actually, it’s a casting error that turns into a directing error. Fortunately it’s not enough to ruin the play, but it does prevent the production from being a top-notch show.

According to the story, Vassilisa proves herself the wisest person in all Prince Vladimir’s kingdom. She’s given the chance to do so when her husband Staver, a musician in the court of Prince Vladimir, gets himself thrown in the dungeon by declaring his wife smarter than the prince. Staver (played by Rob Harless) has obviously proven himself none too wise by provoking the prince. The prince (Eric Frederickson) is a good fellow and runs a tight, happy kingdom, but he’s a little blinded by his own glory to be truly wise. And all the other men in his court (played by either Eric SpitzNagel or Harless) are silly oafs.

The prince’s niece Zabava (Dawn-Marie Fletcher) is the only person with enough sense to catch on to Vassilisa’s plot, but no one believes her. So, in the intelligence department, Vassilisa doesn’t have a lot of competition.

However, Michelle Perry, the actor playing Vassilisa, has too much competition onstage. In Anders’s adaptation, Perry has to play Dean Martin to a slew of goofy Jerry Lewises. Vassilisa is a powerful and clever character, but Perry doesn’t have the strength to bring it out. From her first scene she’s upstaged by SpitzNagel and Harless as the dumb-as-rocks guards who’ve come to seize her castle and bring her to the prince. Later, when her character is disguised as a male emissary of Vladimir’s formidable neighbor, Genghis Khan, Perry’s straightforward delivery gets swallowed up by the exaggerated reaction of these same actors who, according to the action of the play, are supposed to be overpowered by her cunning skill.

Most of the cast captures the cartoonish style of Anders’s adaptation well, generating some genuinely funny and delightful moments. But as the director, Anders should have exerted more control over his actors and given his lead more room to create her character. Instead he lets SpitzNagel and Harless run free onstage. They are two powerfully creative actors but they’re also irresponsible, adding funny bits of shtick without any consideration for the other actors or the shape and focus of each scene.

Vassilisa the Wise is a great script. It’s entertaining, it’s clever, and it tells a damn good story. But it must be remembered that this is a children’s play. Children’s plays demand well-shaped action and clearly defined roles, qualities in Anders’s script that get muddied in his production. I noticed the kids in front of me kept leaning over to ask their moms a lot of questions. It’s not that they weren’t enjoying themselves; it’s just that they weren’t always sure what was going on.