While Imagination Stage has produced a top-notch show—ingenious set, magical ambiance, quirky costumes, music and excellent actors—its decision to perform this “old as old” tale without taking modern liberties to turn the script of this straw fable into a true pot of gold disturbs me.
Rumpelstiltskin (Rum for short and played by Matthew Pauli), the impish “Fair Folk” mischief maker, wreaks havoc wherever he lands. Misplaced items. Moving chairs. Messy rooms. But, Rum’s dark side compels him to steal babies, or make deals that net him a tot, as he does with the Miller’s Daughter (Katherine Renee Turner).
The Fair Folk (i.e. fairies) afflict her from birth: “beauty is our strongest curse.” And so, she’s burdened with being gorgeous while her father, the widowed Miller (Ricardo Frederick Evans) forbids her from working. Hence, she can’t cook, clean, or think. She’s assured her splendor’s a positive gift while also being degraded for it: “You’re beautiful. You don’t need to do anything,” says dad, while Mess (Kathryn Kelley), the cleaning lady, calls her an ornament without use.
The Miller then boasts that she can do anything, even spin straw into gold. This teeny, accidental rumor lands her in the King’s deep, dark dungeon after he’s beguiled by her looks and decides to test her skill. Luckily for the poor girl, Rum appears and spins the gold—extracting payment for his service, including her dead mother’s bequeathed jewels and her first (unborn) child. Children seem to be a thing the Fair Folk most value and adore.
This fable is familiar to most of us, and it, surely, teaches morals. Greed is bad. Don’t lie. Boasting never ends well. Be careful what you promise. Power’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Fairy tales force us to reflect inward and on our behavior. That some are dark and others altered to end well by, say, Disney doesn’t bother me. I’m not a fan of the Puritan “brimstone and fire” type finale and am open to new interpretation of ancient yarns. But, what about teaching girls to use their brain to attain dreams or telling boys that manipulating girls with threats is abuse?
The King’s way of wooing? “If you don’t spin this straw into gold, I’ll have your head. If you do, I’ll marry you,” he, more or less, tells the Miller’s Daughter, who becomes his bride. The play eventually ends with the King and his new Queen dancing, babe in arms, as he tells her thinking is still unnecessary. What’s a boy to take away from this?
Jason Glass plays the King equal parts fiend and infant until the very end, when his own child warms his selfish soul. Still, he faces no penalty for bankrupting his kingdom or coercing a woman into marriage, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Oh, except Rum, who, after losing the baby/payment, descends into a fury that rips his body into two.
Save for some unsavory anxiety, the Miller’s Daughter keeps her beauty, child, and royal status. Forget that she broke a promise and only chastised the King for his bullish courtship to avoid telling him about her devilish deal—which is one part his fault. Of course, she can’t say that. He might cut off her head.
Mess, unfortunately, is burdened with teaching the baby princess how to cook and clean when she comes of age, but she gets to keep her wisdom. “Nobody ever got anything good by wishing for it,” she reminds the audience.
Yet, everything in the story discredits self-reliance as a means to an end. Even when tasked with learning Rum’s name, the Miller’s Daughter sends Mess on the errand. The pickle the girl is in isn’t necessarily of her own doing, but she seems to relish being a victim in every situation.
Fairy Tales are having a renaissance, with grand updates. Look at Tangled and Frozen or the less kid-friendly Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters – it was awful (laughable dialogue and plot), but at least those candy-loving kids fought. For. Everything. Single. Thing. They. Had.
Rumpelstiltskin’s language flows like a poem with form—rhyme and meter abound—and the fiddler (Anthony Hyatt) lurks on the stage continually plucking out somber ditties to add a touch of mood music. The production is near perfect, right down to the burlap sacks and cork barrels peppering each scene.
But the script is packed full of dark sexism that overshadows any wit—and its lack of a modern spin to encourage our children disappoints: I felt hammered with the idea that being beautiful and useless (and also rich) paves a way to success without consequence.
Imagination Stage recommends this for 5 – 10 year olds. But, by the end, my 5 year old guest was near tears.
Rumpelstiltkin by Mike Kenny. Directed by Janet Stanford . Featuring Ricardo Frederick Evans, Jason Glass, Anthony Hyatt, Kathryn Kelley, Matthew Pauli, and Katherine Renee Turner. Scenic Designer: Daniel Pinha, Costume Designer: Katie Touart, Lighting Designer: Rob Denton, Sound Designer: Christopher Baine, Movement Specialist: Gwen Grastorf, and Stage Manager: Jocelyn Henjum. Produced by Imagination Stage . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.