Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fringe 2016 - Sleeper - Sleeping Beauty/Snow White: Middle Eastern-style - 3 stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe Sleeper: Middle eastern dance riff on Sleeping Beauty/Snow White tales, colorful though pacing lags - 3 stars

It can be hard sometimes when people who are primarily dancers and musicians want to tell a story and make sure that it’s accessible.  Al-Bahira Dance Theater’s Fringe show Sleeper was taking aim at Sleeping Beauty/Snow White fairy tale territory with their own take on fairies and evil queens and curses and sleeping heroes roused by others coming to their rescue. 

There was liberal use of a narrator (Trevor Hartman) and he definitely kept the energy up and the story moving whenever he was in the driver’s seat.  But I’m wondering just how much actual narration they really needed.  The prologue/setup was useful, but once the story kicked into gear, the colorful costumes (Laurie Olson Williams) and the dance (choreographed by Artistic Director Mirah Ammal) did most of the talking.  The narration was simply repeating things the action was already telling us very effectively.  With some simple tweaks to the dance to reinforce relationships and initial character introductions, you might be able to dispense with nearly all the narration after the opening in shadow.

The friendship of a young woman destined to be queen (“Amara” Barb Fulton) and her supernatural pal, a horned red bird called the Saqra (Ammal, again) becomes strained when the queen forgets the bird whose magical powers got her to the throne in the first place.  The queen also has the bad parenting instincts to dote on her son and ignore his twin sister.

So when three mystical sisters (“Fareehah” Abigail Smith, “Perizada” Cat Robinette, and “AdaraDin” Ladonna Bartol) get invited to the big royal baby celebration but the Saqra isn’t, the bird has had enough.  She takes the neglected girl to raise as her own to become Princess Farah (Alicia Pankratz), and curses the baby who will become Prince Farid (Samson Perry). 

When he reaches his 20th birthday, Farid will touch a bird’s feather and die.  The mystical sisters, of course, jury-rig the curse so it will just be a deep sleep. Still, there’s bound to be trouble when Farid sneaks out of the house to jam with some street musicians (Eric Breece, Wayne Grimmer, “Dr. D” Dave Lake, and Avni Pandya) and then runs into a whole flock of flamingos - as you do.

The ensemble is rounded out by “Asha” Vivian Chow, “Saffiyah” Jessica Dirksen, “Jalilah” Jennifer Emms, Nicole Gibas, Emily Hellerich, Autumn Elise Pennington, and Laurie Olson Williams.

Mom was happy to see a group of dancers that wasn’t solely composed of a bunch of young women all as skinny as stick figures.  A wider variety of body types is always welcome, particularly at Fringe time.  Ammal as the Saqra is clearly the star attraction here in terms of dancing skill, and acting talent.  But as I noted above, with the story fairly simple, and easily conveyed in visual terms, I think you could actually trust the dance and the dancers to get the job done, and not feel the need to script so much of it for a narrator.  Keeping one dance/one sequence flowing into the next might also allow the story to maintain its momentum.  Costume changes, of course, will require some planning.  But if the whole ensemble isn’t used in every big number, then maybe some folks can be getting ready while others hold the stage.

Sleeper might still be a work in progress, but some of it works so well already that it might be closer than the artists think, and might need less “conventional” storytelling to get it the rest of the way there.

3 stars - Recommended

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