I admit that I went to see freeFall Theatre's Sleeping Beauty with great expectations. After all, freeFall's first production, The Wild Party at The [email protected], was the very best show of 2008 and one of the most accomplished ever produced in the Bay area by a local company. Would Sleeping Beauty — in a different venue, and aimed at children, not adults — live up to the standard set by The Wild Party? Would I again be dazzled by this new company's ambition?
Not really. But that answer may be misleading. In fact, Sleeping Beauty is a solid production that will delight most children even as it fails to matter much to their parents. The acting is strong, if not as consistently brilliant as The Wild Party's, and all the design elements, from the sumptuous costumes to the lush sound and shrewdly useful set, are as good as or better than most of what we see in local theaters. But Charles Way's script, while providing lots of action to hold the attention of young spectators, lacks adult interest almost entirely; the rich themes of the famous fairy tale — good versus evil, love as a quest and struggle, childlessness, envy — are dramatized but not examined. My seven-year-old son had a wonderfully good time, and it may be a case that his views are more relevant than mine. As for me: I was a little bored. There's no reason why children's theater can't also appeal to adults, but this specimen doesn't.
In Way's version of the classic tale, King Peredur and Queen Guinevere are childless until they stumble upon a baby left in the forest. But the child already has a history: It's been the source of conflict between the good witch Branwen and her sister, the evil Modron. When it's time for the infant's christening, Modron, enraged that she wasn't invited, casts a spell upon the baby princess: Sometime before she turns 16, she'll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Branwen modifies the curse, but Briar Rose — the Beauty's real name — is still condemned to sleep for a century unless some prince comes along and kisses her back to wakefulness.
Unfortunately, this savior happens to be a certain Owain, who's not very good at anything, and, besides, hates kissing. Will he ever manage to find his way through the magic forest and bring Beauty back to life?
Bringing Way's version of the story to life are seven talented actors, three of whom give outstanding performances. The ever-surprising Paul Potenza is superb as Gryff, the half-man half-dragon who starts as Branwen's servant but is sent off with Prince Owain to smooth the latter's way. Potenza, made up to look like some flat-nosed raccoon-thingy, is funny and unpredictable and strangely ethnic in a fairy-tale way.
As Branwen, Bonnie Agan is also top-notch: With her, goodness isn't innocence but rather the decision of a wise sophisticate. And speaking of evil, Meg Heimstead as Modron is mean-spirited, loud-mouthed, vindictive and a lot of fun. Other fine portrayals are contributed by Aleshea Harris as the Beauty, Christopher Rutherford as King Peredur, Jessica Alexander as Queen Guinevere and Chris Jackson as Prince Owain. Scott Cooper's set consists of an elaborate series of platforms that also figure as a staircase, and a large painting of a fairy-tale castle that isn't nearly as effective as it wants to be. Eric Davis directs capably, and his sound design repeatedly undergirds important scenes with lovely music.
On the drive home I asked my son what he thought of the play. He said, "It's a girl thing. But I liked it anyway." I don't think it's a girl thing, I think it's a child thing. At least, that's what I noticed when looking out over the audience: The children, male and female, seemed genuinely enthralled. As for me, I prefer a little Freud, Jung or Bettelheim in my fairy tales. But of course that's just a Big People thing.
Artificial Barrymore. There's not much to like about William Luce's Barrymore at The [email protected], directed by Bob Devin Jones. Bob Heitman plays John Barrymore as a ham who overacts even when he's not acting, and so many grand gestures are finally exhausting. Luce's script relies too much on a few running gags, and the Prompter in the wings — played by Greg Milton — is annoyingly repetitive. Only Barrymore's suit and white scarf — designed by Jessica Greene — really work. The rest ought to be silence.
7:30 p.m. March 20-21; and 3 p.m. March 22, $20, $15 students/seniors. 620 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 727-895-6620. studio620.org.