Imagine what it would be like if you had always dozed off to sleep during your childhood bedtime stories, and you never got to hear the words -”and they lived happily ever after”? You were awake for the introduction of the main story characters – a fair maiden, a prince, a beast, a witch – and your head was nodding as the tale was reaching a crescendo of anxiety and crisis, but you were out for the count by the occasion when all was safely resolved and truth and goodness triumphed over evil adversity. Well, all your stories would be unresolved, forever arrested at a pitch of extreme desperation. You yourself might be inexplicably fearful, characteristically tense and anxious, and your slumbering dreams could well be nightmares. Such is the imaginative, if unlikely premise of Cody Lucas‘s Happily Ever After, produced by the Denton, Texas based outfit, Sundown Collaborative Theatre. The main character, Jack, was such a highly sensitive child, drowsy enough to experience this unfortunate set of circumstances. Now, a young man, he is a nervous pill-addicted wreck, afflicted and exhausted by his fear of sleep, a state that delivers him relentlessly to a nightmare realm of terror.
Beginning on a bare stage, with just a spotlight to dress the scene, we are presented with Jack, curled in the fetal position, but adamantly resisting sleep. Cody Lucas, as Jack, is extremely effective at pulling you into Jack’s tormented psyche, his anguished fretfulness never surrendering an instant in which your attention might wander, the tension slacken. Despite his best efforts, sleep overtakes Jack, surrendering him to the frightening world of his dreams. This realm is overseen and controlled by a couple of turn-of-the-century style carnival barkers, Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm. That their tastes and inclinations run toward the perverse is made swiftly clear as they indulge in a groaning session of incestuous mutual masturbation. When their attentions turn toward Jack things can only get uglier. He is summarily educated as to the level of his subjugation to their will and his complete powerlessness. Having dished out a little physical punishment, they decide to proceed on a more psychological level, summoning a cast of hapless story tale characters to re-enact depraved scenes of humiliation and despair. These characters are all as resentful and helpless as Jack, but their rebellious efforts to preserve their dignity are over-rode by the brothers, and each is mocked in a savagely cruel manner. In sequence the brothers call forth the characters – Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Beauty, Hansel, a Prince – as helplessly Jack is made to watch each tableaux of defilement and suffering. It’s a compelling and dark spectacle, punctuated with music, dance, and acrobatics; a delicately visualized carnival of horrors.
All of the performers are to be commended here. There is a conviction on display that defies you to relax your credibility in such a fantastical abstraction. Each scenario pushes at the limits of digestible mortification. The effect is genuinely unsettling. The Grimm brothers (Travis Steubing and Zane Harris) have some nice sneering comical passes, leeringly foul throughout, but never teeter over into recognizable contrivance. Robert Linder (Rumpel) and Nick Ross (the Prince) are especially strong in their scenes. The music (Patrick Emile) and choreography (George Ferrie) are effective at stimulating an atmosphere of drilled corruption. The direction, by Lucas, is taut and detailed. As the offenses mount up, and tension builds, I had utterly surrendered to the story’s gravitational pull, which made the conclusion, when it is suddenly sprung, all the more disappointing for being so pat. The skeleton in Jack’s closet, the bugaboo under his childhood bed, just did not do it for me. For all its ghastliness, the themes invoked in the various scenarios reached quite a bit deeper than the Tales from the Crypt-style denouement we’re served here. If these explanations must be maintained, perhaps the language they are divulged with might be adjusted. As a conclusion it goes some distance to undermining what came before, leaving it ultimately less than the sum of its parts. Horror buffs might disagree with me, but they will surely be delighted by this otherwise admirably wicked tale.
Happily Ever After ran until August 26, 2011 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.