Open Eye Figure Theater’s adaptation of The Juniper Tree uses an innovative blend of live actors, beautiful stage design, and amazing puppetry to bring to life one of the Grimm Brothers’ more gruesome tales. This is no children’s tale, as it brings together love, loss, murder, and cannibalism, while still leaving room for a happy ending.
This new stage adaptation of The Juniper Tree by Michael Sommers sticks close to the original plot of the fairy tale with a few notable exceptions. The play does a beautiful job of fleshing out the relationship between The Father (Julian McFaul) and The Mother (Liz Schachterie) along with the relationship between The Father and his son (Justin Spooner) but the fact that The Father’s wealth is never mentioned makes it hard to understand the relationship between The Father and his second wife, the horrible Madame Traum (Robert Rosen). As the play comes to its climax it follows the original story nearly word for word — which felt a little disappointing after the embellishments and character development of the first part of the play, as the original story is pretty bare-bones.
One of the most notable parts of this play was the sense of wonderment created by the combination of amazing costume design (Sarah Bahr) and stunning puppetry. The costumes easily draw the audience into the Germany of the Grimm Brothers’ era and help to create a fantastical world where over half of the characters are puppets. The magical juniper tree is brought to life throughout the play along with a host of other characters by the considerable talents of Liz Schachterle, Justin Spooner, and Tara Loeper.
Unfortunately, this play also makes a few missteps that really prevented me from enjoying it as much as I had hoped. The play’s villain, Madame Traum, is not only played by a man but she is portrayed in a way that I can best describe as a comical drag queen. Why the casting choice? It struck me as a poor choice – not because of any shortcomings on actor Robert Rosen’s part, or because men can’t play women and vice versa, but because this seemed like a way to get cheap laughs. Ha ha, look at the ugly woman with a low voice, I guess. But what exactly are we supposed to take away from this? That a man who wears women’s clothing is a joke? That men are ugly and women are pretty? That women can’t play over-the-top bad guys? As someone who has a lot of trans-identified friends, this made me uncomfortable.
Another problem came in the portrayal of the murder central to the plot. In the Grimms’ version, Madame Traum kills her step-son so that her daughter will be first in line to inherit the family fortune. But this production never explicitly mentions that the father is wealthy, and Madame Traum’s motivation for killing her husband’s son seems to be a combination of jealousy and stupidity; she is so ignorant that she thinks she can steal the son’s “wishes and dreams” (which she herself lacks) by cutting off his head and physically removing them. This makes her seem a little less villainous than she might otherwise have been – well, that is, until she dumps the son’s headless corpse into a pot and then feeds the resulting stew to her husband (see, I told you this wasn’t a show for children!). As a result, she comes off as less evil mastermind, and more malicious moron; she’s still the bad guy, no doubt, but it’s hard to really despise her.
Ultimately The Juniper Tree felt a little uneven as it jumped between poignant, artistic moments and rapid, slapstick-style comedy routines. The story progressed unevenly, with a slow, thoughtful set-up and what felt like a very abrupt climax. The casting and portrayal of Madame Traum confused me. But at the same time, this is a visually stunning show with a wonderful blend of live actors and puppets (my favourite was the juniper tree itself, which was one of if not the most magical aspect of the play). And I have to mention the music; composer and musician Michael Koerner’s score absolutely brings the action on stage to life, and the musicians are nigh as much a part of the show as any of the actors or puppeteers.
The Juniper Tree created by Michael Sommers and presented by Open Eye Figure Theatre, November 7-30, 2014 at 506 E 24th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets $15 general, $12 students, $10 children 12 and under, and pay-what-you-can tickets always available; tickets can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/878671 or (612) 874-6338.