Arts & Events

Ragged Wing Ensemble in "Open"

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday May 25, 2011 - 12:51:00 PM

"It began with a beard ... "

Ragged Wing Ensemble, local troupe that's been specializing in stylized and physical theater productions for the past half-dozen years, opens the newest show--an original, written and directed by co-founder Amy Sass, appropriately titled Open--with this leading line, referring by it, and in a little shadowplay, to the old folktale Bluebeard, first put into shape by fairytale pioneer Perrault, inspiration for countless books (Dickens, Thackery, Anatole France), illustrations (Dore'), plays (one by Maeterlinck) and operas (like Paul Dukas', from Maeterlinck, or Bartok's, made into a charming Clay-mation-type film by Jean Painleve'). 

But Bluebeard--the story of a serial killer of his own wives--isn't the story here, just the starting point. The young wife (Maria Leigh) of the bearded man seen in silhouette (Keith Davis) is given a key, as in the old tale, and shown the one door she can't open and enter ... but what we see isn't her plight, but the fate of the women hidden in that forbidden room ... "if they were to speak," asks Amy Sass, "What would they say?" 

That's what Ragged Wing explores, in three episodes, "the process by which women (specifically, but not exclusively) are encultured, civilized, and made appropriate for mass consumption." 

How they make that exploration is through an imaginative process they've arrived at through some of their other shows, very much their own form of contemporary, dream-like fairytale, operating on dream logic and a healthy dose of theatricality to arrive at a kind of crystallization of the story and the thinking out of its meanings that becomes more than the sum of its parts, something which can't quite be explained afterwards in terms other than what the audience has just witnessed. 

The staging could be called surreal; it could be called symbolic, but--like with the story of Bluebeard--it only uses those antecedents as inspiration, if at all. 

Something that's surfaced in one production after another since the company's founding, by Amy Sass, Keith Davis and Anna Shneiderman, is a reliance on and understanding of chorus, of an ensemble which acts together as a group, almost an organism, and its relation to the individual characters of a play. Open is one of the most successful ventures Ragged Wing's made into an area not enough explored onstage these days. The ensemble--Mekayla Blanck, Keith C. Davis, Emlyn Guiney, Lisa Klein, Maria Leigh, Erin Mason, Cecilia Palmtag, Dax Tran-Caffee, David Stein, Lili Weckler and Philip Wharton--form and reform into many groupings and play the individual roles as well, and sometimes forces of nature, utilizing much skill in physical performance, besides an obviously quick change of personae ... 

They're joined and backed by Jennifer Holland, Tamara Roberts and Holly Schneider, who sing and play an array of instruments from melodica to toy piano, harmonium to electric guitar with a bow. Michael Feinberg's sets, Dan Weiserman's lights, Gray Morris' costumes and Dax Tran-Caffee's props and puppetry add to the hand-made feeling of the production, the sense of it being something which is at once a repetition of what's happened before--like all good fairytales (and theater)--and what's almost spontaneously come about right this moment before the spectators' eyes. 

The episodes ramble nicely, later converging, through a junkyard, a kind of obedience school-cum-polishing school that makes housebroken pets of wild young ladies, a court of a true Infant King (but one with stubble and an occasionally knowing eye), a hospice that's an ice house for patients, and a kind of miniature, almost clockwork, hell, where the demons are indeed legion, and release the horses of the storm. 

Keith Davis' peddler, his overcoat bristling with bottles, moves in, out, and through the action, offering the narrative when it's needed, though much of the story unfolds in dialogue, songs, sounds and silence. 

Open--and the way the ensemble plays it out--offers theatrical insight, imagination, innovation--kind of a pioneer spirit for a small stage company--and, most engagingly, charm ... all of these apply, of course, to life--but Ragged Wing knows that the magic that makes it all happen is the magic of theater, what they specialize in. 

Thursday through Saturday nights at 8, through June 11, Central Stage, 5221 Central Avenue, Richmond Annex (west of Pacific East Mall, just east of Costco). Tickets: $10-$35. 847-5353; 

(Ragged Wing Youth Ensemble is also performing In Between, their original show of short plays, Monday, May 30 at 4 and 7, Tuesday the 30th at 5, at a different venue, Envision Academy, 1515 Webster at 15th, Downtown Oakland. Tickets: $2-$10, on sale at the door.)