Director Emma Rice, the head of Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre Company, has made quite a name for herself with this year’s Off Broadway-turned-Broadway phenomenon Brief Encounter, a brilliant reimagining of David Lean’s 1946 movie. Now she brings an earlier Kneehigh production, The Red Shoes, to Off Broadway’s St. Ann’s Warehouse — with not exactly ravishing results.
Perhaps the expectations are too high. The stylized theatricality of The Red Shoes, first adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fable in 2002, suggests some of the methods Rice would bring to rich fruition in her later, more revelatory production of Brief Encounter. In addition to a narrator named Lady Lydia (Giles King), bewigged and wrapped in a long purple coat, we meet a cast of four shaven-headed players and two musicians — all dressed in somewhat dirty white undershirts and briefs. Soon Lady Lydia singles out each of our players for their allotted roles in the story — with the expressive Patrycja Kujawska stepping up as the Girl, whose love for her red shoes leads her to outbursts of dancing that soon overpower her until she cannot stop dancing at all.
This is a cautionary tale for the Carrie Bradshaws of the world, but it’s about as deep as a flip-flop. Perhaps to compensate for the thinness of the material, Rice piles on the esoteric theatrical effects: strobe lights, smoke, water, optical illusions, music, mime. Early on, we get some inventive moments of pure theatrical imagination. One of the plain brown suitcases that the cast carries doubles as a gravestone. And in a strikingly affecting scene, the orphaned Girl takes a brush and paints her bare feet red in order to appear as if she’s wearing the coveted red shoes that will be her undoing. But moments later, her feet are washed clean and the simple, striking image is erased for a new visual trope. And then another. And another.
In the end, The Red Shoes resembles a cross between broad-stroke British pantomime and a senior thesis project for a graduate class in Avant-Garde Theater for Beginners. C+
(Tickets: Ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111)