November 28, 2016

When Life Gives You Potatoes, Make an Opera

The iconic imagery, fantasy, and saccharine-sweet tone of the 1950 Disney adaptation of Cinderella has made its way into the collective subconscious of the Western world. So what is the audience of the world premiere of The Hypocrites’ Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes to think when, even before the first act begins, it is triumphantly announced that this adaptation has no magic, no romance, and no prince?

Certainly, this isn’t the Cinderella the audience may think they know. This adaption is more closely inspired by Cendrillon, the French operatic adaptation by Pauline Viardot-García. From the moment audience members walk into the theater, it is clear that something very different is in store. Facing an imposing stage design that features walkways radiating out from the central stage, viewers are wrapped into the theater’s post-modern presentation. Surfaces are draped in hyper-saturated pastels, various instruments populate the stage, and there’s floral print, well, everywhere.

Set as a play within a play, in some kind of almost purgatorial waiting room, various feminist icons gather at a restaurant and theater—including Fanny Mendelssohn (Dana Omar), George Sand (Gay Glenn), and even the aforementioned Viardot-García herself (Leslie Ann Sheppard). In this titular theater of potatoes, they gather to talk, think, and (of course) put on plays to pass the time while the potato stew is cooking. Tonight’s menu is Pauline’s new version of Cinderella: The cook (Amanda Martinez) is quickly elevated to the leading role because of her innate operatic soprano, and off the production goes in its self-aware, post-modern, genre-and-time-bending way; think Noises Off crossed with a PG-13 version of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

This production is reimagined for a modern-day audience by featuring the increasingly relevant social message of equal love and opportunity for all. Cinderella is transformed from someone who relies on magic and fortune to marry a prince—the now-iconic symbol of the old generation and patriarchy—to someone who escapes social repression to independently claim a role she deserves through hard work and individual talent. The composer (also Dana Omar) stumbles upon her perfect soprano by choosing to interview everyone without judgment, the step-sisters (Aja Wiltshire and Elle Walker) concede that Cinderella deserves better because she is kinder than they are, the Baron has an epiphany and turns himself in to jail for child abuse, applause, curtain call.

Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes may not be the traditional narrative of the fairy tale from which it takes its name, but it still presents people transcending the social realities they face. The difference, though, is that this adaptation cannot escape the dark reality that surrounds its social message. While the original presented a fantasy, this adaptation offers a dream of reality that seems almost as far away as the fairy godmother in today’s modern socio-political climate.

That being said, there are enough cultural stepping stones within the production to keep us very much in the world of Cinderella. Within an unfamiliar and strange world, familiar but abstract elements of the traditional Cinderella tale seep through: the mean step-sisters, the parental ball-and-chain (Joel Rodriguez), and the promise of redemption in a world of darkness. The players may be singing, dancing, and generally treating the fourth wall like it’s some kind of stuffy formality, but at the core of this bubbling, vibrant production, the generations-old story of redemption from repression sings strong.

This presentation of Cinderella is no fairy tale; it’s the laugh track to modern social injustices, a post-modern and modern-minded reinterpretation of the past, and above all a rallying cry for a more equal and loving future.

Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes is running through January 8th at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage. Tickets are $36.