Fairy Tale for the Folks

J.M. Barrie's rarely performed World War I fantasy is a treat the kids can do without.

A Kiss for Cinderella. January 2 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue. 216-795-7000.
Michi Barall emotes for an attentive Everett Quinton.
Michi Barall emotes for an attentive Everett Quinton.
Ignorance definitely has its advantages. Give the lowdown about A Kiss for Cinderella to your average theatergoer, describe it as a willfully bizarre Edwardian fantasy, and you'll hear a distinct gulp. Talk about its enchanted drudge of a heroine nicknamed "Miss Thing," who does good deeds for a penny, including curing her neighbor's ills and nourishing neighborhood orphans in World War I London, and your listener will start to gag like someone who has just consumed a five-pound chocolate Santa.

Start to explain how our do-gooder fancies herself a second Cinderella because of her perfect tiny feet. Relay information concerning her true-blue bobby (cop) of a Prince Charming. Then describe her Poor Little Match Girl routine in the falling snow as she fantasizes a ball that plays like a Sir John Tenniel Alice illustration from a lost Wonderland sequence. The ball is ruled by a playing-card King and Queen crowned by what appear to be gigantic rose bushes on their heads. Then there are those "royal beauts," the ladies in waiting, holding a fashion show. And finally, the penguin-suited bishop culminating the fantasy scene with a madcap wedding.

After hearing this description, the dubious and hard-hearted will toss the kiddies out of the van at the Play House portals and immediately speed to the nearest house of inebriation. This, of course, will be a grievous miscalculation, since the tots -- ripped from the bosom of their Nintendo games -- will probably be mystified by playwright J.M. Barrie's antique elfin whimsy, while those rare adults who have a place in their hearts for yesterday's treasures will have missed a delightful windfall.

If, as a millennium miracle, visionaries suddenly got their just desserts, some wizard would have to place a medal for conspicuous bravery against dull programming around Artistic Director Peter Hackett's neck. Hackett, who directed this production, has avoided the temptation to approximate the physical lushness of a Merchant/Ivory film, giving us an interpretation as odd and bracingly eccentric as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

A season that flows among the dangerous shoals of Edward Albee's talking lizards and Strindberg's ferociously difficult A Dream Play would have to earn Hackett the label of daredevil. This lace valentine is as alien to today's fast-food palates as great-grandmother's fruitcake recipe, and presenting it as the season's holiday spectacular is akin to walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. Ever since 1916, it has divided audiences between those who find it lovely and sweet, and those who groan with disgust at nearly every word.

Barrie mined a unique vein of wistful fantasies. He was a frustrated literary pixie with an unconsummated marriage, a mother obsession, and a fixation on little boys. The only women who attracted him were plucky idealized heroines like Wendy Darling. His specialty was the dream episode, in which his characters would fly from reality to wish-fulfillment. He was the prototype of his own Peter Pan.

It is ironic that, along with Lewis Carroll's Alice, two of children's literature's enduring works both spring from male spinsters' fear of adult sexuality, sharing lifelong obsessions with perpetual childhood. Barrie's strange blend of romance and whimsy is the poetic predecessor of John Waters's cross-gender camp.

Hackett has reason to crow, for he has rescued a shining oddity from the isle of lost plays, bringing it back to bountiful life. He applies tough love, attenuating its more cloying tendencies, partially with the help of Michael Ganio's Salvador Dali-like set of London bric-a-brac: a flying clock and grotesque oversized playthings out of a giant toy box.

Instead of giving us the expected radiant Audrey Hepburn/Leslie Caron-type lovely waif for the play's Cinderella, he has cast Michi Barall, who evokes an adorable but fierce little monkey carved out of ivory. She performs with the tender scrappiness of an Our Gang soubrette. Watching her apply her gravel cockney to charm fellow slumdwellers and a ward of wounded soldiers, she elicits the emotional wallop of a female Chaplin.

Setting the production's tone of joyous quirkiness is Everett Quinton, a co-founder of the famous, immortal Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As irascible Mr. Bodie, the heroine's cohort in eccentricity, he embroiders Barrie's drollery with a performance inspired by Dr. Seuss's phantasmagorical felines.

As the policeman prince, Daniel Blinkoff is an unassuming and appealing hero who tenderly offers glass slippers "that seem like kisses" to his expiring pavement princess.

Here we have a precious memento to store in the hope chest of those conservators of past glories. For archivists who thrill to the luminescence of a D.W. Griffith close-up of Lillian Gish, dab their eyes with a lavender-scented handkerchief every time Garbo's Camille sighs her last, and still clap their hands to save Tinker Bell by attesting to their belief in fairies, A Kiss for Cinderella will be a charming grace note to add to their memories.

Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].

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