Fairy tales for audiences — and theaters — that seek happy endings

Maybe somebody spiked the D.C. water system with pixie dust. Or maybe we’re all aching for some happily-ever-after closure as an escape from the open-ended chaos that is current public discourse. Or maybe we’ve just got a cosmic coincidence on our hands, because Washington theaters are offering five — count ’em, five — fairy-tale shows for families.

The Kennedy Center is presenting “Sleeping Beauty,” as written and performed by storyteller David Gonzalez. “Red Riding Hood” is at Olney Theatre Center. Puppet Co. Playhouse in Glen Echo is opening “Pinocchio” immediately after it closes “Rapunzel.” Imagination Stage in Bethesda is staging a “Rapunzel,” too. And that’s not even counting this spring’s two Snow White movies (“Mirror Mirror,” currently in theaters, and “Snow White and the Huntsman,” opening June 1) and the more adult-themed dance shows here in town, like French dance company Ballet Preljocaj’s “Snow White” at the Kennedy Center and the Moscow Festival Ballet’s “Cinderella” at George Mason University.

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Which might make you think, as Liz Lemon would say, what the what? What is going on in the District that’s got everybody digging into the archives to revisit these stories? Why fairy tales, and why now?

Fairy tales are easy money.

This, in a time of tight arts budgets at theaters and limited entertainment dollars among patrons, could be reason enough for the onslaught of Grimm-inspired productions.

A theater can’t ever guarantee that a show’s costs will be low and ticket sales high, but given that fairy-tale stories are in the public domain and both parents and children gravitate toward familiar titles, these selections are as close as a company can get to a sure thing.

“I think for this particular project the finances drove it almost 100 percent,” Amy Marshall, Olney Theatre Center’s managing director, said of “Red Riding Hood.”

“We wanted to bring back our family series and we needed it to be cost-effective. We chose the title because we knew it would be popular.”

“The Theater for Young Audiences market is very much title-driven in general,” said Kim Peter Kovac, the producing director of youth programming at the Kennedy Center. “It’s something people struggle with all the time, because the titles sell but how many different versions can you do? I’ve been doing this 30 years, and there’s been a saying all along: ‘If we could only call it Cinderella.’ So it sells.”

“I think from a pragmatic standpoint, a lot of arts organizations are running scared and they’re going to revert to the titles that they know everybody knows,” said Janet Stanford, artistic director of Imagination Stage. “They’re worried that something everybody hasn’t heard of isn’t going to sell in this climate. . . . I feel like a lot of programmers are scared to do new work.”

It’s about money, then. Maybe that’s it.

But these are fairy tales. Surely there’s a more romantic reason than that.

“Fairy tales are with us. We can’t escape them.”

So said Jack Zipes, who has edited and translated “The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm” in addition to writing a number of fairy-tale-centric books.

Fairy tales are so embedded in our cultural DNA, he said, that we don’t even notice them on sight. “If you turn on the TV, you could see 20 commercials based on fairy-tale motifs. Such as, if you buy Nike shoes, you’ll fly through the air. Or drink this drink as an athlete and you’ll win every game. If you shave yourself, you’re no longer the beast; you’ll have a woman draped over your shoulders.”

The stories resonate because “they deal with essential human struggles to which we’re somewhat genetically disposed. . . . They articulate symbolically the very crucial issues that we have to contend with as we evolve in different societies and cultures.”

At the center of every fairy tale lurks something dark and primal, a fact of life that’s easier to face in fiction: an issue like abandonment, starvation, abuse, neglect. Like parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. Like betrayal. Like heartbreak. Like death.

We don’t typically think of these stories that way, couched as they are in pleasant tropes like “once upon a time” and decked out in sparkling princess gear. We’re accustomed to thinking of these narratives as children’s tales. But these stories weren’t originally intended for children, and the adult anxieties at their cores are the reason they’ve survived.

“You take a story like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and it really turns on the whole notion of innocence and seduction,” said Maria Tatar, who chairs the program in folklore and mythology at Harvard University. “It takes up cultural contradictions that we constantly wrestle with.”

To review: Little Red Riding Hood is a young girl walking by herself through the woods to her grandmother’s house. She meets a wolf. The wolf tricks her, kidnaps her, and kills her. In some versions, she is rescued by a woodcutter. In others, she rescues herself. In the Charles Perrault tale, the earliest known edition, she dies and that’s the end of it. But always there is the girl alone, the dark woods, the wolf grinning, the “My, what big teeth you have!”

“As I’ve interpreted it, it’s a tale about rape,” said Zipes. “And also how women are quite often made responsible for their own rape or violation.” After all, the implicit moral in Perrault’s tale is that a girl who walks alone at night (while dressed provocatively, say, in an alluring red cape) gets what’s coming to her.

It’s terrifying to contemplate, even for a second, yet we think about these topics all the time. We always have. That’s why we crave these tales: We can’t not think about the questions they raise. These concepts, exaggerated for effect and mythologized in the retelling, go down easy in fairy-tale form.

It’s safer to address the peril as if it can’t happen to us, here and now. It happened to somebody else. Far away. Once.

Tatar described what these stories give us as “the worst-case scenario.” Fairy tales take place in an alternate reality where the most horrible thing that can happen to a character is the thing that will inevitably occur.

Surely it’s not a stretch to say plenty of people feel like we’re currently living in the worst-case scenario — the foreclosed upon, unemployed, wartime scenario — and see something reassuring in the fact that some of these suffering fairy-tale characters survive to acquire what they seek, be it love, freedom, happiness, or any combination of all of the above.

Because, Tatar explained, the other thing the stories provide is “the collective wisdom of the past.”

The message in these stories is a comforting one. “That if you use your brains, and if you’re courageous, you can find a way out and find a way back home. That kind of inspiration is something that we all need from time to time.”

Zipes agreed. “One of the things the tales provide is a sense of, there are alternatives. There are ways to beat evil.” What the tales promise us is this: “When we’re being oppressed, if we maintain a certain integrity, we can overcome.

“I think that when times are rough, we are really desperate for hope, for stories that can enable us to transcend [and] resolve these conflicts.”

“I think our current economic challenge everybody has been facing has caused us to look for positive ways to experience different aspects of life, and I think the arts are a part of that,” said Tom Reynolds, director of artistic programming at George Mason University, who selected “Cinderella” out of the Moscow Ballet’s repertoire over options like “Romeo and Juliet.” “I have consciously tried to lighten up a little bit on the things that we’ve been presenting.”

Audiences are pleased with those choices, he said. “I do sense that they are looking for those things that will end up making them feel good at the end of the day.”

Zipes likes to stay away from the idea of a “resurgence” — remember, fairy tales are with us all of the time — but he said “the intensification, I think, occurs in troubled times.”

“Because of the very bitter conflicts that we’re all faced with today,” he said, we crave reassurance in stories that tell us “we can cope with these difficult times and ultimately, with some integrity and perseverance and a certain amount of ethics, good will triumph.”

On Wednesday, the unofficial dress code for girls attending Imagination Stage’s “Rapunzel” seemed to be “pouffy dress and sneakers.” One girl skipped inside the theater with a glittery braid made of yarn that swung to the small of her back; another shuffled in clutching a Belle Barbie doll by the neck. Boys piled in, too, some with school field trips, others fans of Disney’s “Tangled” who were ready for Round 2.

As expected, Rapunzel managed to escape from her tower with the help of a courageous — and, in this version, goofy — prince and make amends with the witch-turned-mother who locked her away in the first place.

When all the couples were wed and the curses lifted, one actor turned to the audience, arms outstretched. “Don’t you love a happy ending?”

The loud, unanimous reply: “Yes!

Once upon a stage (and screen)

Red Riding Hood: A New Fable

Through April 7 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, www.olneytheatre.org, 301-924-3400. $10

Rapunzel

Through May 20 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, www.imaginationstage.org, 301-280-1660. $10-$22

Pinocchio

April 12-June 3 at Puppet Co. Playhouse, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, www.thepuppetco.org, 301-634-5380. $10

Sleeping Beauty

April 14-15 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW, www.kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600. $18.

Cinderella

April 14 at George Mason University, Braddock Road and Route 123, Fairfax, cfa.gmu.edu, 888-945-2468. Tickets $27, $46, $54. Limited student tickets available

Mirror Mirror

Opened March 30

Snow White and the Huntsman

Opens June 1

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