By Leigh Austin
One thing is always certain when seeing a Hypocrites’ production: it will be, at the very least, a unique stylistic experience. That doesn’t mean that it will always be a good one--some shows stretch too far and fail to strike the right balance between the absurd and the absurdly enjoyable. Yet this latest foray, Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes, stands out as a production both whimsical and political, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, funny and serious.
The success begins with Andra Velis Simon’s subversive, witty adaptation. Based on Cendrillon and other compositions by Pauline Viardot-García, the show kicks off with Pauline herself as she welcomes a gathering of prominent artists and musicians (who pay one potato--hence the play’s name--to attend) convening to perform her newest opera, Cinderella. This ingenious set-up pays homage to salons conducted throughout literary and music history and provides the perfect outlet for bringing issues like feminism and acceptance to the forefront of the play within a play.
From there, the diverse cast of characters begins the opera (with Pauline directing), and we witness a Cinderella that seems both wonderfully familiar and marvelously different. Lacking both Princes and glass slippers, the fairy tale is transformed into one where professional goals prove more important than romantic ones and where Cinderella’s worth is defined not by her beauty but by her talent (preach!).
The already-magical premise is invigorated even more by the extremely talented cast and the energetic, innovative direction by Sean Graney. Amanda Martinez (Cinderella) shines in the title role; not only does her genuine, hopeful portrayal as Cinderella charm audiences, but her angelic voice left many, quite literally, breathless. Yet dynamic duo Alex Walker (Paulinette, Mergatroid) and Aja Wiltshire (Louise, Adelind) (who play, in the traditional story, the “evil stepsisters”) almost manage to steal the show from Martinez with their impeccable comedic timing and one-liners (I laughed aloud just thinking about a bit from Wiltshire that resulted in spontaneous audience applause mid-song). All of these performances are strengthened by Graney’s direction, which has the cast running through and sitting with audience members in a manner that brought us into Pauline’s salon and the dynamic energy of the production.
Where the show falters a bit, unfortunately, is in some of the vocal performances. Most of the cast revolves impressively between playing instruments and singing, but Gay Glenn (Sand, Valet) and Joel Rodriguez (Baron, Ivan) struggle to find the right notes vocally, and their wonderful acting performances are at times overshadowed by their lack of musical finesse.
In almost any other music-heavy show, vocal challenges like this could render the production unwatchable, but this is certainly not the case for Cinderella. The vocal struggles are overshadowed by the cast’s vibrancy, the script’s wittiness, and the overall artistry of the production. Most importantly, though, this show manages to transform a classic fairy tale into a humorous but impactful show with a new political and moral message: one that is about fighting for what’s right, believing in yourself, and being kind to everyone. In this political moment, that’s a message that shouldn’t be missed.
Cinderella at the Theatre of Potatoes is presented by The Hypocrites. The production runs through January 8th, 2017 at The Den Theatre. More info.
The Hawk was a common name for the cold, winter wind in Chicago, possibly even predating "the Windy City." Additionally, a hawk can see up to eight times more clearly than the human eye.