In the original version of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” the princess in “The Frog Prince” picks up the frog and throws him with all her might against the wall. The heroine in “Rapunzel” bears twins out of wedlock. And the other female characters in those two tales are depicted as evil, greedy and simple-minded.
What’s a director to do?
The wall’s out, for starters, said Joe Lauderdale, Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre artistic director. So are the twins. Lauderdale’s take on “Tales of the Brothers Grimm” opens today and runs through Sept. 19 at the Moulton Theatre.
“Values in children’s theater are very important,” said Lauderdale, who adapted the stories for the stage with Youth Theatre instructor Christel Grissmer. “But not morals. Everybody has different morals, but values stay the same. Values have to do with respect--for yourself and for other people--and that’s what I try to instill in the young people. A character having twins out of wedlock is not a good value to present to modern audiences.”
The female characters remain evil, greedy and simple-minded.
“We battled about the place of women in these shows,” Lauderdale said. “But these characters show the place of women at one time and in one tradition. That’s part of history. That doesn’t make it right, it makes it history.”
Lauderdale, who also designed costumes, and the German-born Grissmer, who is directing the play, have staged the tales using a commedia dell’arte format that allows the audience to vote on which one of the two stories they’d like to see performed; the actors don’t know which play they’ll present until the vote is taken. “The Frog Prince” and “Rapunzel” each run about 90 minutes.
Commedia dell’arte troupes, popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, featured traveling actors portraying similar stock characters (for example, lovers, masters or servants) from performance to performance, with a great deal of improvisatory spill-over.
The format has several advantages for the Laguna production.
“Most of the set pieces double for both plays,” Lauderdale said. “Even if we never perform one of the two tales, we haven’t built scenery for no reason. Since it’s supposed to be a traveling troupe, they’re limited as to what they can carry. For chairs, we use a crate and a straight piece of wood, with a choice of either a ‘royalty’ or ‘peasant’ back. It’s been great for our budget.”
The original fairy tales, collected by the Brothers Grimm at the beginning of the 19th Century, often come as a shock to contemporary readers. Lauderdale agreed that their homogenization in this century--an almost systematic denuding of the tales’ more monstrous and irrational elements--is a result of our society’s characteristic repression of the darker side of life.
“Absolutely on the mark,” he said. “When we were (adapting) the tales, it was very tempting to include the (more shocking elements.) But I’m also a producer. I have to look at how things are going to work financially.
“In Europe they’re not as repressed as we are in America, so they can be free to include the twins. No matter how true you want to be to something, it’s not always a possibility. You also have to be true to your audience.”
Lauderdale, 31, used the princess from “The Frog Prince” (“The Frog-King, or Iron Henry” in other translations) to show how the stories can be appreciated on many levels.
“The girl is selfish, she hates to be a princess, she hates to do things correctly,” he said. “Like (the Duchess of York) Fergie in England, having to be rigid your whole life causes rebellion. She has a deep-seated anger--she’s shut herself off and she won’t allow herself to have friends.
“Maybe it’s the absent mother--often there’s a king or queen in these stories but no other parent, and that’s the case here. Perhaps her mother died. That’s a possible reason for her turmoil, but there are tons of possible explanations for her being the way she is.
“That’s one aspect of the story you could focus on--and it’s not the one we chose,” he said.
In both tales, Lauderdale chose a level that could be appreciated by the whole family, from ages 4 and up.
“In ‘Rapunzel,’ it’s that you always run the risk of losing what you try to protect the most,” he said. “Our witch doesn’t hide Rapunzel because she wants to be cruel, it’s because she’s a very lonely character who wants to keep her for herself.
“In ‘The Frog Prince,’ we focus on friendship and the value of keeping promises. Kids often haphazardly make a promise--'Oh yeah, I’ll call you'--and breaking that promise can ultimately have a great effect on people.
“Just because you don’t see friendship (as a theme) doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he said. “That’s why these stories are so great. Just like the Bible, different people see different things. You see in the characters whatever you are experiencing as an individual.”
* The Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre production of “Tales of the Brothers Grimm” runs tonight through Sept. 19 at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Performance times are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Sunday shows are sold out. $6 to $9. (714) 497-5900.