Tall bales of straw (or so it looks) loom as backdrop to “Rumpelstiltskin,” the artful, stylized fairy tale dramatization now at Imagination Stage. The agrarian image is a good emblem for this production, which is directed by Janet Stanford from a script by U.K. playwright Mike Kenny. The plot of “Rumpelstiltskin,” of course, pivots on the title character’s magical transformation of straw into gold. As if echoing that theme, this adaptation foregrounds transformations of a theatrical kind.
Scurrying impishly around throughout the play, for instance, is a chorus of mischievous elfin beings — the Fair Folk, Kenny calls them — who sometimes turn themselves into the story’s characters or physical landscape. Members of the Fair Folk tribe, headed by Rumpelstiltskin (Matthew Pauli), might stretch their arms out to form a window frame in the cottage where the Miller’s Daughter (Katherine Renee Turner) grows up. Or they might rotate their arms to suggest a churning mill wheel.
Also helping to transform a Bethesda interior into wondrous Brothers Grimm territory is the Fiddler (Anthony Hyatt), who strolls around the stage, frequently conjuring up the story’s environment and action through music. When the Miller’s Daughter follows the King (Jason Glass) into the castle cellar, for example, the violin traces an ominous sequence of descending notes. At other times, the Fiddler dashes off atmospheric underscoring, including melodies in a classical vein and folk tunes.
The Fair Folk, who speak chantingly in rhyme (and are aptly dressed in ragged tinkers’ attire by costume designer Katie Touart), set the tale’s action in motion. Not only do they saddle the newborn Miller’s Daughter with good looks (“Beauty is our strongest curse,” the elves smirkingly observe), but, when she grows up, they spread the inaccurate rumor that she can spin straw into gold — a boast her father (Ricardo Frederick Evans) has made in a burst of injudicious parental pride.
When the spoiled, greedy King hears the claim, he orders the young woman to the castle (denoted simply by a banner emblazoned with fleur-de-lis) to monetize the straw in the cellars. She can only accomplish this feat with the help of Rumpelstiltskin, who extracts a reckless promise from her first. Not to worry — all ultimately ends happily, with exuberant dancing by the Fair Folk and castle denizens alike.
Capering about in a straw cap, Pauli invests Rumpelstiltskin with a fine, sprightly menace. Turner also is particularly good, creating a distinctive, down-to-earth, sometimes exasperated personality for the Miller’s Daughter. Evans works the right comic notes into his portrait of the court chancellor, a frequent victim of the Fair Folk’s pranks. (Lovers of slapstick will enjoy the sequence in which they repeatedly pull a stool out from under him.)
And Kathryn Kelley doubles ably as the Queen and the low-born Mess, housekeeper to the Miller. Capable, humble and joyous, Mess eventually becomes a powerful figure who rivals Rumpelstiltskin, a twist that gives this version of the fairy tale a very subtle feminist subtext.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Mike Kenny. Directed by Janet Stanford; scenic design, Daniel Pinha; lighting, Rob Denton; sound, Christopher Baine; movement specialist, Gwen Grastorf. Recommended for ages 5-10. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $10-$35. Through March 16 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.