Fifty-odd years ago, the late Chicago-based theater and improv comedy legend Paul Sills brought the Brothers Grimm (as well as some of Aesop’s fables) to Broadway, and came away with a hit show. “Paul Sills’ Story Theatre”—starring such luminaries as Paul Sand, Hamilton Camp and Valerie Harper (plus Richard Schaal, Harper’s then-husband)—was developed using the theater games of Sills’ equally celebrated mother, Viola Spolin, and it married theatrical playfulness with wry wit and a touch of thematic depth. According to New York Times critic Clive Barnes, the play brought “magic and innocence” back to Broadway.
That’s your theater history lesson for today, gentle reader. I bring it up to underscore what’s lacking in “Grimm,” a superficially similar anthology of fairy tales adapted by Michael Dalberg and presented at the tiny Theatre Above the Law space in Rogers Park. Whereas the Sills show treated the Brothers Grimm stories at least semi-respectfully as windows into archetypal characters and situations, Dalberg’s versions of the classic yarns—including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Frog King,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “The Fisherman and his Wife” and several others—teach us little about them, or about us, for that matter. He has managed to amputate much of the weird, dark wonder and terror of the originals, leaving them with little of either magic or innocence. Linking them together is a murky, half-baked narrative about the Grimm Brothers, which takes itself far too seriously and clashes with the mood of the fairy tales themselves.
It’s too bad that the script is so uninspired, because the ensemble shows that it’s capable of being sprightly and engaging. Connar Brown in particular is fun to watch in her multiple roles, whether she’s operating a sock-puppet frog whose preferred pronoun seems to be “they,” playing an entire gaggle of rambunctious young brothers, or depicting a creepy-voiced hobgoblin who is both savior and enemy to the story’s hard-pressed heroine. But under Tony Lawry’s sometimes tone-deaf direction, the actors can also be annoyingly glib and smart-alecky, and the production never finds its groove. The last fifteen or twenty minutes of this ninety-minute one-act spin out of control altogether, as the show careens from cartoon-like farce to Svengoolie-level horror to sticky melodrama, with every phase staged in an amped-up, camped-up manner.
Despite the play’s flaws, these fables do manage to teach some important morals, all negative: that attitude is not the same as deep feeling, that arch posing does not equal real acting, and that smug and cute aren’t synonyms for smart and insightful. We also learn that there’s a word for plays without a satisfying storyline or unifying purpose, and that word is Grimm. (Hugh Iglarsh)
“Grimm” at Theatre Above the Law, 1439 West Jarvis, (773)655-7197, theatreatl.org, $15-$25. Through October 30.