'Story' Knits Together Wry Yarns

Karen Novack, left, and Kim Tuvin in Open Circle's
Karen Novack, left, and Kim Tuvin in Open Circle's "Story Theatre." (By Ian Armstrong -- Open Circle Theatre)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The setting might be a shelter during Hurricane Katrina. People, their faces smudged with dirt, huddle amid the detritus of ordinary life: toppled traffic signs, overturned shopping cart, battered blue toilet, a bed. In the crowd is a tiny girl. To comfort her, the refugees begin to tell -- and enact -- stories.

This poignant scene provides a supple springboard for Open Circle Theatre's thoughtfully conceived, pleasantly wry staging of "Story Theatre." Reprising Paul Sills's 1968 play, which breathes an improvisatorial spirit into Aesop's fables and Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, co-directors Suzanne Richard and Ian Armstrong create a sensitive portrait of humans impelled to fend off grim reality with an imaginative veil.

By design, the tales never fully unmoor from the opening tableau's natural-disaster conceit. (And, thank goodness, the tales are not ones rendered too familiar through Disney adaptations and the like.) When the 14 cast members are not taking turns relating or dramatizing stories such as "The Bremen Town Musicians" or "The Master Thief," they sit or mill about in their roles of evacuees, watching and listening. Photos of devastated landscapes -- a flooded street, buildings reduced to rubble -- splay against a backdrop. Now and then, thunder reverberates through the Round House Theatre, whose capacious dimensions reinforce the image of a public refuge.

Open Circle, a company focused on involving artists with disabilities in professional theater, values accessibility, so every speech is also relayed in American Sign Language, either by the speaker or another actor. As a result, there's a satisfying abundance of visual material to contemplate: the signing, which has an energy and theatricality of its own; the backdrop of disaster; the motley attire (Tina Weich and Allie Lidie designed the costumes); and of course the acting.

Greg Anderson is particularly engaging in roles that include characters from a pleased-as-punch Bremen Town -- bound donkey with a shambling gait and a dunderheaded crow who does a mini-tap-dance routine. Michelle Banks packs pizazz into her turn as the phobic chicken Henny Penny. Elver Ariza furnishes a droll moment as the ogling Robber Bridegroom, and Joe Lewis turns evil giggling into an art form as a pixielike spirit. Six-year-old Rachel Boyd displays admirable performance discipline, while shooting the production's adorable-tyke quotient into the stratosphere.

Although the characterizations are often funny, the show's frame of catastrophe draws out the material's dark elements. Many of these fairy tales involve cunning scams or discrepancies between truth and illusion. And then there's the Grimm Brothers' brand of colorful morbidity: allusions to human and animal deaths; cameos by treacherous supernatural beings; a plot that involves cannibalism and a severed finger; a narrative set in a graveyard.

In this post-Bruno Bettelheim era, it's not exactly news that macabre yarns can serve as a coping mechanism; but Open Circle's "Story Theatre" manages to free this insight from the usual Hansel and Gretel-style trappings and translate it to the world of CNN and the Weather Channel.

Story Theatre by Paul Sills. Co-directed by Suzanne Richard and Ian Armstrong; production design, Marie-Audrey Desy; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sign master, Jill Owens. With Jamie Boyd; Lori Boyd; JP Illarramendi; Karen Novack and others. Two hours. Through Sept. 13 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-683-0305 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company