Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Red Shoes,” has inspired its fair share of adaptations, from films to musicals. But none have stuck as closely to the source material, while still making the story its own, quite like this one.
In the Kneehigh Theatre’s reimagining of the enduring children’s story, running now through Dec. 12 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, the Cornish company brings the macabre tale to life with much humor, sensuality and haunting visuals.
Lady Lydia, a transvestite witch of sorts played with good fun by Giles King, is at the helm of the production, leading an androgynous, mostly mute group of bald storytellers wearing nothing more than white undershirts and briefs. The minimal costuming makes them anonymous, but also easily enables them to transform into the story’s various characters. Most prominent are a blind old woman who takes charge of a young orphan, known as Karen in the fairy tale, but simply “The Girl” here.
The Girl deceives her sightless caretaker into buying her a red pair of shoes — shoes that, while somewhat clunky, make her feel sexy and unique. She wears them to church, even though she’s only supposed to wear black, and is soon skipping service to dance and smoke cigarettes with a soldier. Her vanity gets the best of her, though, as her beloved shoes become permanently planted on her feet, and an angel dooms her to dancing until “skin hangs off your bones.”
To relieve herself of this torture, the girl convinces a butcher to chop the shoes — and her feet — off. In their place, he makes her wooden shoes.
It’s at this point that the gripping production gets away from itself, taking on a manic pulse that unravels most of the haunting overtones that came before it. The otherwise inventive theatrics also seem a bit amateurish. Though freed from their prisoner, the red shoes still taunt The Girl, flying about her head as she tries to seek shelter in her church. This aerial effect is achieved by attaching the shoes to fishing line, with red lights to help them stand out, but the effect is clumsy and distracting.
This being a children’s story, you might be thinking of bringing your family to the show. The production is silly at times — in one of the theater’s characteristic cabaret moments, there’s an amusing magic trick where one of the storytellers levitates — but it is not as suitable for children as the theater’s marketing efforts make it seem. That’s especially true during the moments with the butcher with the sound of sawing and screaming.
It’s a reminder: fairy tales are supposed to be grisly (and they’re not really for kids).
“The Red Shoes” at St. Ann’s Warehouse [38 Water St. between Dock and Main streets in DUMBO, (718) 834-8794], now through Dec. 12. Tickets $35-$60. For info, visit www.stannswarehouse.org.