Cin­derella, dressed in power

A fe­male creative team, com­mis­sioned to create a mu­si­cal at the Ad­ven­ture Theatre, gives voice to ‘Ella En­chanted’

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY ROGER CATLIN

When D.C. play­wright Karen Zacarías and her fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor, com­poser Deb­o­rah Wicks La Puma, were com­mis­sioned to create a mu­si­cal ver­sion of “Ella En­chanted” that’s hav­ing its world pre­miere at Ad­ven­ture Theatre, there were hun­dreds of vari­a­tions of the Cin­derella story to draw on.

Most were writ­ten by men, in­clud­ing the best known ver­sions from the Brothers Grimm more than 200 years ago and Walt Dis­ney nearly 70 years back.

Adapt­ing the 1980 New­bery Honor win­ner by Gail Car­son Levine (it­self made into a 2004 Dis­ney live-ac­tion film star­ring Anne Hath­away), the women found them­selves en­joy­ing the same kind of fe­male em­pow­er­ment as the work’s spir­ited hero­ine. It was fur­ther am­pli­fied when Mary Hall Sur­face was added to the creative team as di­rec­tor for the work, which opened this month as part of the the­ater’s 65th sea­son.

We asked the women about their ex­pe­ri­ence sep­a­rately. Their answers have been edited.

Q: Was “Cin­derella” an im­por­tant story to you grow­ing up? Are its themes still a big part of the cul­ture? A: Karen Zacarías: I grew up in Mex­ico, where the Cin­derella myth is alive and well in both good ways and bad: that ev­ery young girl is a po­ten­tial princess, and that sal­va­tion is just a prince away. Dis­ney has made mil­lions bank­ing on this fan­tasy, and our global fas­ci­na­tion with Princess Diana and Princess Kate springs from our fas­ci­na­tion with the Cin­derella nar­ra­tive. “Cin­derella” is both a story of hope, redemp­tion and jus­tice while also be­ing a story of pas­siv­ity, obe­di­ence and phys­i­cal at­trac­tion. Gail Car­son Levine’s book sets Cin­derella on her head by giv­ing her grit and vi­sion.

Deb­o­rah Wicks La Puma: Grow­ing up, I was never a big fan of Cin­derella, as she al­ways seemed so pas­sive. She seemed to be a vic­tim of out­side forces who merely got lucky. And as a girl, I wanted to be­lieve I had some con­trol over my own fate and could “save my­self.” My fa­ther, who was raised by a sin­gle mother, en­cour­aged me to be strong and in­de­pen­dent so that I would al­ways have choices in what di­rec­tion my life would go. Per­haps that is why I had the courage to be­come a mu­si­cian and com­poser. I love Levine’s take on the story — in her ver­sion, Cin­derella has a rea­son for her obe­di­ence and has the will to over­come it her­self in the end.

Mary Hall Sur­face: I cer­tainly knew the story as a child, pre­dom­i­nantly from the Dis­ney ver­sion. But I be­came more deeply con­nected to the story as a stu­dent of folk and fairy-tale lit­er­a­ture, learning that vir­tu­ally all cul­tures have their own ver­sion. Fairy tales are en­dur­ing sym­bolic ex­plo­rations of grow­ing up — of a child/youth be­ing thrust into the un­known and hav­ing to dis­cover who they are and what choices they will make. The story ab­so­lutely en­dures in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, for its themes of self-dis­cov­ery are time­less.

Q: What were the most im­por­tant themes you wanted to be sure were rep­re­sented on stage? A: Zacarías: Ella, like most girls in the world, is cursed with obe­di­ence, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have choices. Although she lives in an op­pres­sive en­vi­ron­ment, she never gives up or gives in. She re­sists, and in­sists on find­ing a way to have her will be heard.

Ella’s re­la­tion­ship with the prince is based on mu­tual re­spect and in­ter­ests; they be­come best friends as they fall in love. They both come across as real peo­ple who like each other for who they really are. I think mod­el­ing a real and healthy re­la­tion­ship is very im­por­tant to both boys and girls.

Wicks La Puma: Karen and I im­me­di­ately latched onto Ella’s love of lan­guage, which is a won­der­ful de­tail Levine brought to the story. Karen and I both come

from house­holds that speak mul­ti­ple lan­guages (French, Dan­ish, Span­ish, Por­tuguese), so we share Ella’s love of be­ing able to speak our minds in mul­ti­ple ways!

Sur­face: The dra­matic ques­tion of the play for me is “Will Ella find her power?”; Not just, “Will she break the spell?” Find­ing her power im­plies Ella’s dis­cov­er­ing how she can con­trol her own story and drive the ac­tion to­wards self-dis­cov­ery, de­spite strug­gling with obe­di­ence. So even in the tran­si­tions from scene to scene, I wanted the au­di­ence to fol­low Ella’s jour­ney — to ex­pe­ri­ence when the world on stage sweeps her from place to place in con­trast to when she is in con­trol of where she is go­ing and how she gets there. Ella grows from be­ing a pup­pet — lit­er­ally — in the first scene to be­ing in com­plete phys­i­cal con­trol by the fi­nal scene.

Q: Did it make a dif­fer­ence cre­at­ing a mu­si­cal of fe­male em­pow­er­ment with an en­tirely fe­male creative team? A: Zacarías: Not only are the three of us friends, we are also all moth­ers to daugh­ters. So the process of build­ing this story came from a place of deep un­der­stand­ing and com­plete clar­ity as to what was at stake for our young Ella. We knew in our bones that the idea of not hav­ing full con­sent or full own­er­ship of your body and ac­tions is a curse — and yet we never wanted her to be a vic­tim — and en­sured Ella used her wit and hu­mor and brav­ery to save her­self. Be­cause that is what Ella does: She saves her­self.

Wicks La Puma: Ab­so­lutely, it has been a pure joy to create this show with them. Karen and Mary Hall are such dear friends that we have an enor­mous amount of trust and re­spect for each other, thus mak­ing our col­lab­o­ra­tion eas­ier and more fruit­ful. We were able to take the rewrites and pro­duc­tion to a level of depth that would not have been pos­si­ble without our feel­ing of sis­ter­hood.

Sur­face: I’m sure it did make a dif­fer­ence. All three of us have made strong choices that de­fine who we are as artists and as women. We brought that strength to en­vi­sion­ing this pro­duc­tion. The “curse of obe­di­ence” is some­thing all women rec­og­nize. I think we could all see in Ella a model for how you live with the curse while fight­ing to break free from it. We are also all moth­ers of daugh­ters. We have very per­sonal rea­sons to fight for a world in which women’s rights are hon­ored and val­ued. I in­stinc­tively imag­ine the­atri­cal worlds that fea­ture the power and wis­dom of women, both on stage and off. Our de­sign team was pre­dom­i­nantly fe­male as well.

Q: Ad­ven­ture Theatre Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Michael J. Bob­bitt says it’s im­por­tant that kids hear the story of “Ella En­chanted” in part be­cause of “this time in his­tory.” Do you agree? A: Zacarías: “Ella En­chanted” is a fun and frol­ick­ing mu­si­cal, but it also car­ries a pow­er­ful mes­sage about each child’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to dis­cover his or her own unique voice and use it to make the world a bet­ter and more in­clu­sive place. It’s a play that en­cour­ages chil­dren to re­sist bul­lies, to re­sist op­pres­sion, and to find the true magic of com­mon lan­guage and com­mon ground.

Wicks La Puma: I be­lieve this is a time­less story that speaks to any­one who feels op­pressed or who is look­ing for the courage to change their lives. We are at a piv­ot­ing mo­ment in our coun­try, where we could swing back or for­ward in how we treat each other based on our race, our gen­der or our na­tion­al­ity. Do we have the wis­dom to lis­ten to oth­ers who might not speak our lan­guage? Are we will­ing to walk in some­one else’s shoes and see how our ac­tions af­fect their lives? Do we have the courage to stand up and say no?

Sur­face: Ella’s com­mit­ment to mak­ing good choices in the face of in­jus­tice and to stand­ing up for what is right make her an ideal model to­day — not only for young peo­ple — but for all of us. style@wash­post.com

Ella En­chanted Through March 19 at Ad­ven­ture Theatre Mu­si­cal The­ater Cen­ter, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. $19.50. 301-634-2270 or ad­ven­turethe­atre-mtc.org.

SARAH STRAUB

Malinda Kathleen Reese por­trays Ella, while Kurt Boehm, Si­mone Lewis and Shanta Para­sur­a­man play ogres in “Ella En­chanted,” a mu­si­cal rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the clas­sic tale of Cin­derella.

From top, D.C. play­wright Karen Zacarías, com­poser Deb­o­rah Wicks La Puma and di­rec­tor Mary Hall Sur­face col­lab­o­rated to present their it­er­a­tion of “Ella En­chanted.”

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