Striking a deal with the devil is always a dicey proposition, as Kneehigh Theatre demonstrates in “The Wild Bride,” a gruesome mash-up of mime, dance, fairy tales, English music hall and American blues.
The British group, directed by Emma Rice, brought a staging of the film “Brief Encounter” to San Francisco and New York in 2008. That production showcased the company’s theatrical and musical skills even if the Noel Coward story came off as a period piece. Now they’re back in the Bay Area with a different approach -- down and dirty.
A dapper devil, strumming a guitar, sings a jazzy number about his boredom. For amusement he approaches a poor father and offers him wealth and luxury in exchange for what’s in his backyard. The foolish man, thinking only of his apple tree, agrees to the swap. Then he learns that his daughter, the deal’s true object, is also behind the house.
The girl is pure and her hands are clean, so the devil demands that they be removed (or else he can’t take her with him). When Daddy complies, it’s not a scene designed for young children.
Yet the girl gets up and sings a soulful version of Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Crossroad Blues” (“Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride/Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by”), then evades the devil’s attentions and sets off to live in the wilderness. When the mud-smeared girl eats a pear from the orchard of a prince, her fortunes begin to turn. The story shifts to scenes of marriage, childbirth, war and redemption, with the devil following close behind.
The production features a talented cast of three men and three women who sing, dance and play musical instruments along with acting. The staging is simple yet effective. The music is engaging. So why is the show less than fully satisfying?
Perhaps the Grimm’s fairy tale on which it’s based, “The Girl Without Hands,” is too primitive and cruel to engage our sympathies. Maybe the story is too convoluted in the second act of the show. Perhaps it’s just that the devil -- who often seems the most human of the characters -- didn’t get his due.
The U.S. premiere of “The Wild Bride” runs through Jan. 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org. Rating: **
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(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)