There is theater, there is dance, there is music. And then there's Fortunata, which pours luxuriously between the gaps and presents all-encompassing performance.
Fortunata, a piece adapted from Jeanette Winterson's novel Sexing the Cherry, is being presented this weekend by the Oberlin Student Theater Association. The script, written by seniors director Ru Robbins and collaborator Peter Sciscioli is an adaptation of the fairy story, The Twelve Princesses. (However this tale includes only nine princesses.) Through movement, speech, music and puppetry the traditional fairy tale is presented with a new revisionist twist.
The show begins with the performers sitting casually together on the stage talking about fairy tales like The Twelve Princesses. The concept of "happily ever after" emerges, what it means and how it has always been considered the end. Happily ever after was always marriage to a prince, but is that it? Robbins describes the similar viewpoint that Winterson adopts in Sexing the Cherry, "[Sexing the Cherry] is… taking a second look at the fairy tale. Jeanette Winterson's saying `why is that happily ever after?'" As Fortunata shows, there is a lot more that happens after happily ever after.
Fortunata herself, junior Alexandra Atkins, introduces the show. It is a very straightforward introduction, almost too much so. The following performance is so beautiful and poetic that the introduction lacks equivalent grace, but it does provide a thesis statement for the show. Fortunata presents the tale from the perspective of the princesses. "This may not be the story you've read in story books or heard from your grandmother. You may not even think it's true, but it's ours nonetheless." The introduction makes a fascinating point about subjectivity. Each person sees stories through his or her own window, tinted by his or her own preconceptions. As Fortunata explains, "We see only what we want to see, learn only what we are ready to know, and acknowledge only what we are ready to accept."
Under Robbins' direction beautiful scenes and brilliant movements tinged with a haunting quality are created. The imagery of the show is quietly exquisite, with a sharp point. At the beginning of the show tenderly defined silhouettes cast onto the backdrop; the figures of the sisters. This particular image is used once or twice in the performance and the picture captures the fascinating fear that story books inspire in the young child's heart.
Movement constructs the story of The Twelve Princesses. Each performer, as one of the sisters, captures the poetry of her lines in an articulate movement as the story is told. Sound designs of the show are the creation of senior TIMARA major Sofia Klatzker. Gurgling water noises, blowing winds and the gentle melody reminiscent of a child's music box add new dimensions to an already multifaceted piece.
Puppetry is an original performance element not frequently included in Oberlin shows. Fortunata's puppet (operated by sophomore Bronwen Densmore) stands tall, wrapped in white gauze with a large plaster head. Most striking is the puppet's frightening enigmatic face. The white ominous figure shadows the princesses throughout their performances.
Robbins said of the puppet, "It's about the strength that you get when you know you're acting truly. When you've investigated the situation and investigated yourself, when those things are in place you have so much strength and power." The puppet draws together the separate stories of the princesses. In selecting each one to come forward from the ensemble the puppet empowers each princess.
This piece of the show brings together Fortunata's constituent elements: the haunting puppet, Klatzker's creative sound design (this time a trembling, echoing whisper) and talented performers that create a penetrating energy on-stage. First-year Hannah Cabell's voice is clear and strong. Her narration sharpens the scene without destroying her character's initial timidity. When decision and action are taken by Madeline, Cabell continues to carry it well. Cabell expresses hard and soft, bitter and innocent well.
While the individual chapters of Fortunata are strong, the connections between them are tenuous. If the thread that weaves the sections together was as strong as the sections themselves the impact of Fortunata would be tremendous. Robbins is certain that she will develop the piece more again sometime in her life. After initially reading Sexing the Cherry, Robbins said, "I couldn't get the pictures out of my head. I got very obsessed this summer. There was no way I could give this piece to someone else."
Robbins designed most of the production herself; sets, lights and costumes. Desiring to execute the entire piece following her vision, Robbins took on the role of director for the first time.
Robbins' directing debut is strong, and well supported by Sciscioli's first-time role as a movement coordinator. Some dramatic sections do not fully grasp the emotion, as in the previously mentioned introduction by Atkins' Fortunata. But most pleasing is for the most part the audience will not know if the performers are primarily actors or dancers, since the two roles are usually mixed so fluidly.
Fortunata's astute capture of emotions like fear, awareness and strength is inexpressible in words. Perhaps this is why Fortunata is more than just a play. To achieve this sensuality, strength and awareness the performance draws on all mediums. The softness and silence, the power and vigor twist into a captivating performance unlike any other.
Fortunata is being performed in Wilder Main Lounge Friday, March 15 at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 16 at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 17 at 2 p.m. Tickets available at the Wilder Desk, $3 in advance, $4 at the door. Sponsored by Oberlin Student Theater Association.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 18; March 15, 1996
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