Open Eye Figure Theatre and Oddfellows Collective, a new theater entity formed of well-known local artists, most notably the play’s writer/director/designer Joel Sass and writer/performer Kimberly Richardson, have opened “The Red Shoes.” Although inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen classic, these red shoes appear through a mail slot in a seedy urban flat, inhabited by a mousy woman of indistinct young age.
The woman (Richardson) obsesses about solving a murder (or murders) in the shabby apartment, which she never leaves. She acts out the crimes, the victims, the investigation via her tiny figure theater, but she, too, is victimized by the mysterious appearance of enchanted red shoes.
But what really happens? If anything? The murders – and her pivotal and multiple relationships with them – are overwhelmingly real to her. But “real,” in this story can mean many things, intermingling imagination, dreams (nightmares!), personality disorders and day-to-day life. “Everyone who lives here goes to pieces,” she says. But who is “everyone?”
What holds this loosely hinged logic together is a tightly wound technical machine. Ingenious theatrics with light, sound, props and effects support a complex environment made up of the simplest objects. These technical elements are another cast of characters with which the single on-stage performer (Richardson) interacts. Backstage actors (Ariane Mass, Rick Miller and Noah Sommers haas), are a part of the action of the play, too – outside the window, behind the door, through the pipe!
The dark, quirky fun of this play is akin to the fun of playing with mechanical toys instead of digital/virtual ones. So visceral! Bill Healey, lighting designer, and Sean Healey, sound designer – and all the technicians, really – deserve kudos for their contributions. Sass, as the director, is crazy-adept at spinning lots of plates. The cue sheets must have been prodigious!
And then there are the shoes – or, more often, one shoe off and one shoe on. Watching Richardson move in one red shoe – or watching the red shoe move her – is simply dazzling. I would have loved to see more of this! And less of her scuffling around the stage in itchy bare feet, emitting absurdly timid mouse squeaks. I couldn’t wait for her transformations into other characters, accomplished with the ease of the dancer she is. This is where the show’s “film noir” and vintage detective novel influences work the best, and Richardson’s versatility shines.
The idea of this play is an interesting construct. Making this kind of story work – as a story – is another matter. The character’s wanderings in and out of the play’s layers – the motivations for taking us from one “place” to another – was a little too murky, and the pacing was hobbled by a bit of wheel spinning, particularly after it’s stunning beginning. Stronger “bones” in the play itself might have made the premise not so rickety.
It’s a classic motif: painfully ordinary woman appears in an abstracted world that’s far more exciting than the concrete reality she’s in. But in this case, the character comes off a little cliché. She could have been played as any woman, really, imagining herself playing many roles in life.
Still, it’s an intriguing and skillfully produced show. If you need the comfort of a straight-ahead, buttoned down plot, you may be mystified or even a little annoyed. But if you love clever theatrics done blissfully well, and will happily skip past voids in the bumpy story, well, you’re be enchanted, too. Wear your red shoes. I dare you.
“The Red Shoes” runs through March 19 at Open Eye Figure Theatre. It’s a charming, cozy space and there’s plenty of free parking nearby.