Mary Zimmerman’s Fairy Tale Tapestry Weaves Light and Dark
by John Chakan
Once upon a time…
We all remember sitting under the covers, listening to Mom or Dad or Great Uncle Harry read us a bedtime story. As a child, I used to put myself into the fairy tales: fighting the giant, outsmarting the witch, and always, always living happily ever after. We can do it again with Mary Zimmerman’s “The Secret in the Wings” at Contra Costa Civic Theatre.
When we read the original Grimms’ fairy tales, we find that stories can have unhappy endings. Fairy tales are part cautionary tales, part coping mechanisms, helping children (and adults) face common fears—fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of betrayal, fear of losing a parent and ending up with a wicked step-mother. While good usually triumphs over evil, losses and lessons create richer narratives with high stakes.
“The Secret in the Wings” by Mary Zimmerman takes some darker, lesser-known fairy tales and spins a wonderful web of stories. Told in an accordion-like manner, the play unfolds by starting a story, and then midway through, starts a new story. After several iterations, a central tale emerges. Then the cast wraps up the stories in reverse order.
This clever mechanism interweaves the stories, with the talented cast rapidly changing costumes to play many roles. Speaking of the cast, it is a true ensemble, where each actor gets a chance to shine. The actors are beautifully synchronized, whether quickly bantering back and forth, or speaking in unison.
Each actor showcases one talent: singing, physical comedy, accent work, or dancing. My 10 year old son particularly enjoyed Jenn Bates, who begins the play as the little girl, Jen, enjoying a story told by a neighbor who happens to be an ogre. Bates has a wonderfully expressive face, along with quick comedic timing.
The play is dark with many funny moments. My 10-year old loved it, and I think that my 6-year old would enjoy it as well, although the tales are definitely Not-Disney. Characters die, some are maimed, and true love does not always win the day. But there is hope, and there are laughs. In one of the stories, “Silent for Seven Years,” seven actors dance with fans, as they are transformed into swans—a beautiful moment.
The basement set, masterfully designed by Kuo-Hao Lo, offers a magical playground, where characters emerge from chests and bureaus and under stairs. The players enter and exit as different characters, and you can imagine a young kid creating imaginary worlds in her basement. She adds a crown to become a queen and a tail to become an ogre. The action is well-choreographed, a testament to the expert direction of Jack Phillips.
“The Secret in The Wings” is witty, fluidly performed, smartly designed, and well-paced. The stories are dark, but lessons and adventures abound, even if some tales avoid “happily ever after.”
The ominous stories offer surprises and adventures, with unique endings. The show is appropriate for savvy school children and imaginative adults. My 10 year old wants to see it again, and I will bring my 13 and 6 year olds, as well.
“The Secret in the Wings” by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Jack Phillips, at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito, California, through Sunday, March 11, 2018. Info: ccct.org
Cast: Jenn Bates, Andrew Calabrese, Richard Friedlander, Avi Jacobson, Keith Jefferds, Alyssa Kim, Julia Norton, Joel Stanley, and Lisa Wang.