written by Claire McGuinness
This past Saturday, at the Frank and Katrina Basile Theater, a good sized audience assembled and were delighted by two talented storytellers. Bob Sander delivered a lively introduction which highlighted the significance of Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s 30th season. As Sander said, thirty years of performances is an impressive feat for any arts organization. Sander’s high energy and good humor set the tone for Deborah Asante’s opening story.
Asante’s story was a “fairy tale for grown ups” in more ways than one. The setting of the story was not a fanciful, fictional kingdom, and the woman at the heart of the story was not the traditional damsel although she did experience distress. The modern setting and realistic family issues made Asante’s main character, Shelly, a woman I could envision and relate to. Of course, Asante’s humor-driven, full-body storytelling techniques allowed everyone in the audience to see Shelly clearly and grow to empathize with her. I appreciated the slow reveal of the fairy tale aspect of this story. Until Shelly opted for a frog instead of a dog, the story was more realistic than fantastical and didn’t draw directly on a fairy tale framework. However, after the introduction of the affectionate frog I had a good idea where the story was going, but was happy to let Asante build the suspense and take me there. The ending was hilarious, and perfect for the new twist format. I never thought I’d hear a Frog Prince story with twerking and stripping, but I’m very glad I did.
Mary Gay Ducey told the rest of the tales on Saturday night, and was a joy to listen to. I appreciated the multi-cultural aspects to the stories Ducey chose for us, delivering two more traditional, European style stories, as well as one from Indonesia and one from Appalachia. Ducey began with the Southern Appalachian Cinderella story called “Catskins” and delivered it in the storytelling style of her own Gran, who was apparently a talented storyteller herself. The Catskins story had aspects of Cinderella, but the protagonist was a “handy girl” who rose to the rank of princess through her own work and wit, without the benefit of a fairy godmother. Ducey’s storytelling for this tale took on the persona of her Gran, the dialect, the cultural references and a bit of self awareness and tongue in cheek references to the likelihood of magical occurrences. I appreciated that at the end of the story Ducey took time to emphasize Catskins resourcefulness and independence. The character negotiated her terms of royal marriage, and emphasized independence and compassion, she was no Disney Cinderella by far.
Ducey told two shorter tales as well, alternated between her longer pieces. One was a clever parable about a farmer, a tiger and a holy man in Indonesia. This story asked the audience to examine motives and reasoning, to look past what is done to see why it is done. It was a clever tale that poked fun at hypocritical morality, all with the driving suspense of a hungry tiger. Ducey also shared a version of the Frog Prince story. Although this tale started in a conventional way, Ducey’s twist on the ending seemed to question if the story was as conventional as it seemed, or if perhaps the conventional fairy tales we tell are there to obscure or embroider much more realistic situations.
My favorite of Ducey’s tales was her telling of Rapunzel. This story was told completely in persona, Ducey took on the character of Rapunzel’s mother and gave a first person account of her side of the story. This was Ducey’s most “adult” fairy tale. It included the gnawing ache of loneliness, a painful childbirth scene, kidnapping, murder and banishment. It was not a story of happily ever after, either. Ducey’s mother/witch/crone character, disappointed by Rapunzel, was still searching for fulfillment when the story ended, still believing another child was what she needed. I believe this was the most powerful of Ducey’s performances because of the way she full inhabited the character. In all of her stories, but especially this one, Ducey displayed an exquisite vocabulary that lent itself perfectly to the visual details needed to transport the audience to the fairy tale setting. By using the persona of an often voiceless character, the importance of the story was shifted away from Rapunzel’s romance, to the drive and the desires of her mother. It became a different story entirely, with Rapunzel’s motivation swept aside with the same dangerous force that knocked the prince off the tower and to his death. It was dark, but enthralling.
The night of fairy tales was a lively way to spend a Saturday. Two talented women swept the audience away with their stories. The stories were funny and sad and bright and dark, but they were not passive entertainment. They told stories that made me laugh and feel, but also made me think.