When the little girl in the row behind you remarks on how Cinderella’s stepsisters are her favorite part of the play after the first act closes, you know you’ve been drawn into a slightly different retelling of the classic fairy tale. The Arden Theatre Company’s production of Cinderella has all the familiar pieces you know from the rags-to-royalty story, but presented without the usual trappings. Though the plot meanders its way to a late and sudden conclusion, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Once again the Arden’s stage does not fail to impress, with David P. Gordon’s incredible rustic set delighting the eye. Characters pass in and out of view through one of six giant, rotating screens that flank the stage on two movable walls. The visually simple staging does an amazing amount of work to paint a scene through clever use of shadows on the screens, suggesting magical trees, protective birds, pumpkin carriages and rodent footmen without any more props onstage than a trunk and a bed. The sliding walls and panels keep the slow-moving plot feeling more dynamic than the action really is, a neat trick in light of the simple character sketches playwright Charles Way presents us with.
As written by Way, Cinderella (portrayed by Arden newcomer Mary Tuomanen) isn’t a terrifically sympathetic character. Rather than a put-upon heroine who becomes a virtual slave under the yoke of a wicked stepmother, in Way’s script she comes off as an angsty and petulant teen who can’t stand being told what to do. She bites. She mopes. She puts pins in her step-sisters’ shoes! This behavior is supposed to be a reflection of how she can’t forgive her father, Sigmund (Joe Guzman), for remarrying after the death of her mother. Her father is a wet mop of a man who barely registers as he is whipped around by his new wife’s pronouncements, seeming to forget his daughter’s feelings in the throes of newfound domestic security.
Despite Cinderella’s acting out, somehow she has the good fortune to attract a fairy godmother to set her on a path to love. Â The fairy godmother (Kala Moses Baxter) flits about in the form of a bird through most of the play, with a clever costuming job done to frame her hand as a beak and arm as a sort of puppet. Her motions always suggest an avian essence that fits the character’s quirky and random interjections into the plot, keeping Cinderella moving inexorably toward her prince (a nimble and charming Peterson Townsend as the king’s son, Sebastian).
Both Cinderella and her step-sisters are forced into an awkward mixed family, and both with parents now departed (and both not very impressed with the replacement). Step-sisters Constanze (Alex Keiper) and Aloysia (Miriam White) don’t provoke much more ire than any pair of teenaged sisters otherwise would â€“ there’s teasing and roughhousing, but it’s all quite everyday. Even Cinderella’s new stepmother, Maria (Susan Riley Stevens), only comes across as a bit cold until explicitly ordered to ruin Cinderella’s life by the king. It’s a mission she takes on rather too gladly, and until that point it wasn’t clear that Maria was a trueÂ antagonist.
There are hints of some deeper messages about the time healing wounds and dealing with grief, which seem somehow both heavy-handed and overly subtle in a tale told to children. A grown-up take might have delved into these topics more deeply, but there is no doubt that this is a production for the kids â€“ the second act featured more than enough tomfoolery and physical comedy inside the walls of the royal palace to keep the six-year-olds in the crowd rolling with laughter. Mozart (Matteo Scammell), a.k.a. ‘Wolfie’, tends to provide a cartoonish comic relief alongside the daffyÂ odoriferousÂ King Leopold (Benjamin Lloyd), both keeping the little ones entertained with their juvenile antics rather than serving much in the way of advancing the storyline. Selections from some of Mozart’s concertos pop in variously to mix up the way the narrative wanders, but probably aren’t interesting for the wee ones who want to see more slapstick.
Way’s Cinderella is certainly unlike the Disney version of this story you’re probably familiar with. The little girls in the audience had not dressed up in their princess costumes because they wanted to be just like this Cinderella. Nevertheless, there is enough excitement to keep their eyes on the action, when the action eventually shows up. The play isn’t pitched at so low a level that parents will be bored by nursery-rhyme drivel, but it isn’t so sophisticated that it will go over the children’s heads. This production definitely offers something different for the fairy-tale-theatre-going crowd, and turning a familiar tale into something at all novel is a feat in itself. The Arden has staged another show beautifully, and is once again providing entertainment that an entire family can enjoy.
Cinderella runs now through January 27, 2013. Ticket prices are $16-$36, with significant discounts available for groups of 20+, and additional resources and classes available to teachers. Call the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, order online at www.ardentheatre.org, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd St. in Old City, Philadelphia.