Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Frank Note on Fairy Tales

by Marcella Kearns

Heinrich Lefler illustration, 1905
When I first started studying up on FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, I found a remark by playwright Terrence McNally labeling this piece “a romantic fairy tale.”


Romantic fairy tales and I have a fraught relationship. I love some. I hate some.

The ones I hate have that button on the end. You know it: “And everything was pretty spectacular always after that.” You’ve heard the famous three-word phrase. I won’t write it here. Nope. On a similar note, most romantic movies and plays? Romance novels, romantic comedies? Same thing for me. Yawn.

The stories I don’t mind—okay, the ones I love—take into account that life knocks us about pretty well, but sometimes there are concessions, sometimes pleasures, sometimes a little redemption, and maybe, sometimes, a bit of real happiness. Take “Rapunzel.” Rapunzel gets pregnant by that prince who visits her in her tower, and the fairy who’s raised her there gives her the boot, and she ends up birthing twins and living in misery in a hovel. Then that prince goes to visit her again but winds up meeting the fairy instead and throws himself from the tower in despair.

He loses his eyesight and wanders homeless, until years later when he stumbles upon the hovel where Rapunzel and the kids are.  She recognizes him and cries over him, and he gets his eyesight back. That’s the end (I kid you not—that’s from the Grimms’ earliest collected version of that tale). A little fun followed by a lot of misery, and I’ll grant, a tiny miracle, perhaps—but no indication in the story that all the suffering up until the reunion was just erased. In fact, I like to think those characters’ separate trials are given some acknowledgment and dignity by that simple ending.

Walter Crane illustration, 1874
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve witnessed Disney-level real life romances unfold. I’ve fallen in love at first sight myself.  I appreciate that depth of experience. But that doesn’t mean everything’s a snap then, or ever after for those characters or real people. I'm much more inclined to turn my eye towards a story that has some evidence of a relationship still at work after its inception.

“Romantic fairy tale” notwithstanding, McNally has drawn portraits of people who would in no way end up a theme park couple, and I appreciate that. First, I see this play as an anthem of sorts to the anonymous masses or the rarely celebrated—the ones who fail, who don’t get asked to prom, who aren’t spectacularly beautiful, who make mistakes and end up with battle scars, the ones whom we pass on the street or sit near on the bus or tip at the restaurant without remembering their names.

Second, this play never forgets the fact that there’s work at being together after coming together. It’s not just (okay, I’ll say it now) Happily Ever After. What happens when you run people with a lot of mileage up against a chance they might not have thought they had?

Mary MacDonald Kerr, who’s directing FRANKIE AND JOHNNY at MCT, phrased it best. At first rehearsal, in front of an intimate collective of production team, staff, board, and MCT friends, she offered up the question: “Fairy tales and romantic comedies bring us to sex. So then what? What is choosing, what comes after?”

We only see Frankie and Johnny for a short while, but this play’s infused with the work of after. Of choice. Of mileage and what to do with it. That’s the kind of fairy tale I can get behind.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com for more details.

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