BEFORE YOU MAKE IT to your seat at Shaking the Tree’s latest play, a stranger takes your hand, another pours water over it, and a third gently pats it dry.
I promise it’s not weird.
But it is a suitably ritualistic beginning to Head. Hands. Feet: Tales of Dismemberment. That subtitle is not fucking around: Head. Hands. Feet is a partially devised performance of stories pulled from fairy tales and classical mythology that (SURPRISE!) deal with women in peril and chopped-off body parts. No doubt, this is an objectively gross premise. But the play itself is mostly delightful to watch, with some creative staging, a gorgeous minimalist set, and a strong cast of Shaking the Tree regulars and newbies alike employing a broad scope of talents to remind you exactly how fucked up most fairy tales are.
In case you had healthier childhood hobbies than repeatedly gawking at the workaday violence of the Brothers Grimm or the horrifying regularity of murder and kidnapping in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, here are just a few of the things Heads. Hands. Feet features: abductions, lopsided agreements with demons and gods, a bloody adaptation of The Red Shoes that resembles a parallel-universe version of Footloose wherein the townspeople don’t realize that dancing is harmless fun, and one instance of child sacrifice. Maybe don’t take your nieces!
These are recognizable stories, but in this child’s garden of terrors, they’ve been transmuted in gently subversive ways, and paired with enough whimsy so as to avoid—for the most part—becoming unrelentingly dour.
Though I’m generally into anything Samantha Van Der Merwe directs, I didn’t love everything about this production. The first half is so fun and inventively staged that when it’s followed by a pretty rote adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia (the original “oops, angered a god and must now kill my child” story), it’s a bit of a letdown. But the ensemble’s actors are all so good it almost doesn’t matter. Standouts include Matthew Kerrigan (playing a number of evil men), Jamie M. Rea (her Clytemnestra is one of the best parts of the Iphigenia segment), Rebecca Ridenour, Beth Thompson (as a sort-of doomed Kevin Bacon), and Nikki Weaver (as a girl without hands).
If you faint at the sight of stage blood or fall asleep at the mere thought of Greek tragedy, this play won’t be for you. But if you are a grownup who loves the entire month of October, The Craft, or the original Wicker Man before Nicolas Cage ruined everything, Head. Hands. Feet will be the adult equivalent of “Disney’s Halloween Treat.”