In his book on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm called “The Owl, the Raven and the Dove,” Georgetown University scholar G. Ronald Murphy notes that these “fables and myths express a feeling that nature is aware of us. We, in turn, are afraid of the passing of time and aging.”
These exact themes are brought out as puppet master Elizabeth Dapo returns “Rapunzel” to some of its original associations while bringing in some new ones in her impressive one-woman puppet show, currently running at the Puppet Co. at Glen Echo Park.
She begins by noting that “rapunzel” is actually a kind of radish. In the tale of “Rapunzel,” we see nature exerting its influence over human beings as a woman sees a field of rapunzel which, quoting the original Brothers Grimm tale, “looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable.”
In a scene from this puppet show represented more as modern marital friction than as a fairy tale, the wife prods her husband to go over to a field and get her an abundant supply of rapunzel. Unfortunately, this field is owned by a witch (“a wishy-washy witch,” comments Dapo alliteratively, for she is neither particularly bad nor good).
The witch (constantly invoking her comic magic spell of “Poof!”) exacts a promise from the husband that she will continue to supply the wife’s craving of rapunzel if the couple gives their first-born child to the witch. It is a safe bet, the man thinks, as they are middle-aged and unlikely to produce offspring.
The couple then unexpectedly conceives, and the child Rapunzel grows up (and grows her long, beautiful golden hair) under the care of the witch. Yet “the passing of time and aging,” as Murphy puts it, become issues as beautiful Rapunzel is likely to be spirited off by a man, leaving the witch old and alone. The witch locks Rapunzel in the tower, telling her to let down her long hair every day so that the witch can climb the tower: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”
One day along comes a prince, and the conflict widens. During the show, one is astonished that one person can operate all puppets and create distinct voices for the puppet characters.
One of the aspects which makes the Puppet Co. ideal for children is the exposure to music it gives them, as in the recent holiday offering “The Nutcracker,” which made extensive use of the “Nutcracker” music of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky. This time, snatches of Broadway and film music are sung, such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” and “It’s De-lovely,” featured in the similarly named Cole Porter biopic.
As the husband circumvents a rock pile to get to the rapunzel plants, “Over the Rockpile” plays to the tune of “Over the Rainbow” from the film “The Wizard of Oz.”
A controversial feature of the Brothers Grimm tales today is the use of graphic violence, and it should be remembered that technically these were not fairy tales: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm instead called them “Tales for Children and the Household.” Puppet Co. Director Christopher Piper explains that his troupe walks a fine line between being true to the original tales and the desire to soften the impact of violence on children.
For instance, the prince who has come to Rapunzel is blinded as his eyes fall on thorns. The word “briars” is used instead of “thorns,” as “briars” is less likely to be in the ken of young children. Very wisely, the Puppet Co. does not touch other “adult” aspects of the original Grimm tale: Rapunzel and the Prince have intimate relations in the tower, as the story later speaks of the “twins to which she had given birth, a boy and a girl.”
The set used in the production is simple but charming. The couple, for example, lives in an idyllic thatched medieval hut. The sets do not undergo many variations in the course of the performance and are not as complicated as some recent Puppet Co. shows, such as “Pinocchio.” The set changes are nonetheless very effective and subtle.
“Rapunzel” is recommended for children big and small; it even speaks to adults in grown-up vocabulary to keep them entertained, as when the witch curses non-rapunzel plants by telling them: “I see herbicides in your future!” The Puppet Co. has been a favorite for reviewers at The Montgomery Sentinel, and we again warmly recommend its production of “Rapunzel,” which runs through Feb. 16.