All art by some essence tells a story, and storytelling has as much potential to provoke reflection as it does to entertain. While fairy tales as we know them, or knew them as children, are a break from the quotidian, their themes are often timeless and universal. “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” is only a more specific and goal-oriented rephrasing of “art is the lie that leads to the truth,” a theme quintessential to playwright/actor Ashley Griffin’s Snow.
If storytelling—as put by Griffin—is a dying art, then she herself is in the vanguard of its resuscitation. Following a 2016 summer premiere at Under St. Marks, her brainchild Snow was brought back by A.N.O.N. Productions for another run at The Producer’s Club, where it played to riveted audiences. Fluently acted by a versatile cast, Snow explores common themes of love, the human condition, and storytelling itself via a medium aptly chosen by Griffin for its relevance and ubiquity—fairy tales.
Snow is set in three separate storylines revolving around the tale of Snow White, with a cast of six actors playing corresponding archetypes in each. The first is a historical account of the Brothers (Jakob and Wilhelm) Grimm’s attempt to save Germany from cultural subjugation by collecting and preserving its fairy tales, and how they clash over the dilution of the details. The second concerns a family of thespians during the Victorian era whose exploits begin to mirror the events of Snow White as the (step)mother grows jealous of being supplanted by her daughter’s success. The third and final is the story of Astrid, an abused modern-day girl who is rendered comatose—but for her, waking up is a choice, and a difficult one at that.
The three stories, staged seamlessly by Sage Barrie, illuminate tiny but important aspects of one another. As a motif is discussed and mused upon by characters in one world, it is transpiring in another. The frequent transitions during the scenes are, as put by Griffin, “little poems”: The set pieces are few and versatile, and all six actors are dressed in a base of “actor black”; a prop or a costume piece are all that separate one identity from another, making feasible the mere seconds an actor has to turn from English to German, from malevolent to timid, from being in full view to being part of the background.
This is done very efficiently by the actors, whose performances themselves are nothing short of laudable. Although Leslie Alexander’s lines as Isadora/Donna were occasionally rushed (to the detriment of their gravity), she is powerfully detestable and vulnerably paranoid as the evil queen. Ryan Williams draws praise for being both the selfless, paternal Jakob and the domineering, amoral Jack; the latter seizing everything in his path with a lustful verve that makes one’s blood curdle. Jay William Thomas balances a boyish charm as Tate and Arthur with a nationalistic zeal as Wilhelm Grimm. And Gracie Beardsley, in the words of reviewer Seth from TheatreArt (I couldn’t top this): “…showed poise and intelligence beyond her years as all of the little girls in the show…Charm, innocence, vengeance and grace pour from her as she captivates our heart.”
Special mention must be given to Ryan Clardy’s Shadow: As a personification of death, or Vernichtung (German: literally “destruction), Clardy gives life to an immaterial force that quite literally pervades the entire play, tying the three storylines together. Summoned to deliver the kiss of death to any character that draws close to it, Clardy’s imposing stage presence is the veins and arteries of this show. I find his character a refreshing take on death; a fairy, a forgotten celestial who, after eons of struggle, is neither fully naive nor resigned, who with all his witness and wisdom still possesses a somewhat childlike spirit, and is still caught off guard by Astrid.
And Astrid is, in the hands of her architect Griffin, a tragic and arresting centerpiece to the story. Astrid is a physical and emotional challenge for any actress, and Ashley Griffin plays her roles with the commitment of one who created them, but more importantly, understands them. Her electric chemistry with Clardy’s Shadow is as inimitable as the fantastical circumstances of their bond. Astrid, deprived of love and trapped in abuse, is quite literally in love with and flirts with death, desperately wanting him to take her. Shadow is entranced by a disposition he’s never received from a human, and cares deeply for Astrid, but knows that to consummate it—by a kiss—would be to kill her. Their love climaxes in the final scene tremblingly, but intimately. It is a section written entirely in stage direction, but to the audience member, it simply defies description.
Arguably the most resonant part of this show is the writing. Drawing from a line within: “Storytellers take words and make order out of the chaos of life. They must be able to look at everything in the world and find the sense in it” (funnily enough, this bill also fits critics). The characters in Snow are, to Griffin’s immense credit, fully fleshed out and not the impersonal caricatures on whom they’re based. They also, when taken out of larger-than-life settings and pantomimic portrayals, face and respond to situations not so different from our own. Griffin’s visceral reframing of Snow White and its more traditionally-sourced elements (abuse, incest, and murder) is a harsh reminder of how desensitized we are to such darker things in fairy tales. This is compounded upon by the Grimm brothers, who become their own greatest enemy as they edit the stories they’ve compiled. Love, however, remains the prevalent theme of Snow as in its fairy tale predecessors. Love is the common denominator in the characters, be they in search of it or in resignation from it, in faith or neglect of it, or acting for or in spite of it.
One of my favorite examples is the tale told by Shadow in the first scene. It spoke of a good and wise king whose daughters competed for his affection. One thought she could do so by becoming beautiful, the second by becoming good and kind. Eventually the first became cruelly jealous about her beauty, and the second became self-righteous and cold. The king tearfully responded thus:
“My daughters, you did not need to make yourselves beautiful and good to earn my love. Do you not understand? You were beautiful already, and might have been truly good if you had known in your hearts how much you were already loved. If love could be earned I fear no one would ever obtain it, for we are none of us as pure and good as we ought to be. Beauty will fade, and goodness will not protect you from trials. Therefore, be joyful. And love others, not to get a reward, but to honor the love that has been so freely given to you. Put your hope in love.”
This significantly foreshadows the paths of the two “archetypes” concerned. Leslie Alexander’s queen/stepmother roles are all concerned with beauty: The aging actress Isadora fears her loss of it and becomes jealous in the incipience of it in her daughter, and Astrid’s mother Donna blames her for the loss of youth and beauty that come with pregnancy. Ashley Griffin’s Snow White roles, on the other hand, pursue goodness: Isadora’s daughter Clara grows up around the idea of being a good, obedient girl, while Astrid doesn’t think she’s good but wants to be, for the same reason she wants to be loved. None of these characters believe they deserve love inherently, and not as a reward for their achievements of beauty and goodness. The final choice presented to Astrid of believing in love despite her resignation is exemplified in the other choice she has to make: That of waking up from her Snow White slumber to a mortal world she must then continue to face. The play ends as Astrid opens her mouth to answer, making hers the only storyline out of the three that isn’t completely wrapped up. It is gripping, it is suspenseful, and it is poetic.
Of course, Snow is not without its flaws. The transitions are flawless, but sometimes the action during the scene is a little artificial, liable to break the flow of an exchange. Moreover, its two-hour runtime as a one act play isn’t for the faint-hearted (or, for that matter, for the small-bladdered). It is a heavily worded and themed piece that, while infinitely quotable with its many musings, is probably lost in no small degree to the audience member that isn’t giving full, unblinking attention. That said, Snow’s didacticism is only half-way to being Brechtian, stopping close enough to still resonate emotionally; Griffin has achieved a tentative balance between the two. In conclusion, her presentation of this material is in no way contrived. At its core, it is beautiful, ambitious, and original, and I would be neither chagrined nor surprised to see it produced again in the future.
For more information on Ashley Griffin, visit her website.
All photos here courtesy of Micah Joel