The Ash Girl lacks colour and feeling

The Ash Girl

By Timberlake Wertenbaker. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Saturday, September 27. Continues until October 12

The great thing about fairy tales is that they’re like collective dreams. In The Ash Girl, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker turns the Cinderella story into an intellectual exercise, which wrecks it. There’s no mystery and very little tension in Wertenbaker’s feminist, postmodernist take. Ash Girl’s stepsisters still hack off chunks of their feet so that they can wear the magic slipper but, instead of letting the grisly poetry of these acts work on its own, Wertenbaker insists on making references to foot binding and plastic surgery.

The script is illustrative as well as obvious. The seven deadly sins appear as Gluttontoad, Greedmonkey, Pridefly, and so on, and these characters make internal processes explicit. As the sisters dream of riches, Greedmonkey not only hovers nearby to represent what they’re feeling, he also describes the robes and furnishings they’re imagining. In other words, he spells out their subtext.

And Wertenbaker’s language bugs me. After Greedmonkey has spilled the sisters’ thoughts, he refers to himself as “a pied piper of images, playing jaunty jingles of greed”. Shut up with the alliteration already.

Director Sarah Rodgers and her cast do a decent job with this boring script. Susan Coodin and Ella Simon, who play the vulgar stepsisters, make an excellent clown pair. Luc Roderique is winningly openhearted as Prince Amir, the guy who wins Ash Girl’s affection. Evelyn Chew is creepily forceful as Sadness. And, with her buzzing speech and twitchy gestures, Genevieve Fleming makes a strong impression as Pridefly.

Lindsey Angell, who is one of the most talented and charismatic actors to come through Studio 58 in recent years, delivers a clear and emotionally honest performance as Ash Girl, but the character as written is so annoyingly passive that there’s only so much fun Angell can have with her.

In Bryan Pollock’s kinetic art piece of a set, a decaying house breaks apart to reveal both a forest and a palace. And Karin Konoval’s evocative sound design mixes a toy piano, a kid’s xylophone, and a pennywhistle with more traditional instruments, including a violin.

Still, I’d rather watch a version of the story that’s instinctual and emotionally persuasive, even if it’s as appallingly retrograde as Pretty Woman.