Re-inventing a Beautiful Dreamer
By Tom Wachunas
“How many times do you read about 'the Cinderella story,' the story of the underdog, the story of the ordinary human being, often subjected to cruelty and ignorance and neglect, who somehow triumphs?” - Kenneth Branagh
How many times indeed. After only a few minutes of research, I was sufficiently reminded of the long history behind the tale that we in the West know as Cinderella. If there are any readers out there not familiar with it, I pray for you. In any case, the roots of this iconic narrative - which is essentially about how a downtrodden heroine triumphs over her oppressors - date as far back as a Greek story from around 7 BCE. I think it fair to say that despite centuries of literary and theatrical adaptations and revisions (not to mention cinematic variants), from across many eras and cultures, it continues to be something more than an escapist fairy tale. You could call it an allegory of the human condition, if for no other reason than it seems that we, under myriad names and circumstances, are still defining and searching for our “happily ever after.”
So enter yet another adaptation. This brand new one delivers a refreshingly modernized and relevant message without succumbing to saccharine preaching. Loosely based on The Brothers Grimm version, it’s written by Beth Knox, Managing Director of Canton’s Players Guild Theatre, and premiering now in the Guild’s intimate arena theater. Not surprisingly, the production features a superbly talented 13-member cast, directed here by Michael Lawrence Akers and Jonathan Tisevich.
Raucous chaos ensues whenever Ella’s mean-spirited stepsisters and stepmother are present. Kassandra Frazier, as Esmeralda, and Sarah Marie Young, as Prudence, have several show-stopping scenes, none more hilarious than when they clumsily attempt to take instruction from their flustered mother (Madame Arrington, played by Daryl Robinson) on how to waltz. Frazier’s unruly Esmeralda often speaks while chomping on the biscuits and rolls she routinely pulls from her bodice, making the many insults she hurls at Ella (including naming her Cinderella) all the more…cheeky. Young’s air-headed, whiny Prudence is something of a sonic phenomenon. Complementing her expressive if not cartoonish facial contortions is a speaking voice shrill and piercing enough to peel wallpaper. Like, eeewwwww… Meanwhile, Daryl Robinson deftly turns the manipulative, haughty, and frenetic Madame Arrington into an effectively chilling portrait of vapid pomp and strident greed.
Talk about passing on family values to the next generation… In that regard, Ella, played by Desirée Hargrave, is anything but self-serving or deceitful. Hargrave invests her character with palpable tenderness tempered with unflappable resolve to make the best of the bad circumstances engineered by her feckless and dysfunctional family. It’s that disarming tenderness and determination that grabs both the attentions of the Fairy Godmother – a truly giddy spirit delivered with lovable swagger by Elyse Ramirez – as well as the introspective heart of the prince, Alexander, played by Drake Harbert. To that role, Harbert brings authentic warmth and gentleness. It’s a trait that seems to run in the Royal family, as Corey Paulus, in his role of King, plays his part too with equal credibility.
Here is a Cinderella with a true servant’s heart, evident in the brief but endearing scenes when she so freely shares her passion for books and the wisdom they can impart by teaching some local children, here named Catherine and Nicholas, how to read. In those roles, both Rylee Horning and Noah Tisevich make a delightful picture of youthful, effervescent eagerness to imagine life as a fulfilling adventure.
In the end, this new adaptation tweaks or deletes many of the extraneous incidentals of the familiar (and frankly all too sappy) Disneyesque narrative we’re accustomed to. Instead, we’re given a compelling scenario of a selfless and courageous dreamer. She's not the numbed victim of life’s cruel and unexpected vicissitudes. She doesn't sing a self-pitying 'someday-my-prince-will-come' dirge. She simply pours her gifts into others. Walk a mile in her shoes, and the world could well live all the more happily.
Players Guild Theatre presents Cinderella – A New Adaptation, in the William G. Frye Theater, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / FRIDAY at 7:00 p.m, SATURDAY and SUNDAY at 2 p.m., THROUGH FEB. 5, 2017 / TICKETS: $17 adults, $13 for ages 17 and younger, available at www.playersguildtheatre.com or call 330-452-7617
PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Desirée Hargrave / Desirée Hargrave and Drake Harbert / (l to r) Kassandra Frazier, Desirée Hargrave, Sarah Marie Young