“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
That quote by G. K Chesterton, referenced in Snow, lies at the heart of Ashley Griffin’s darkly moving new play. Fairy tales have existed in some form or another for thousands of years – changing as history progressed and new authors put their stamp on them. Some might say erasing their truths in the process. The power of storytelling is the essence of just about every art form, and yet it is rarely discussed. As the character Clara says in Snow: “Storytellers take words and make order out of the chaos of life.” A well-composed narrative has the power to galvanize, horrify, or inspire hope unlike anything else. And narratives are all around us, even when we don’t realize it.
Case in point? Take that Chesterton quote. A lovely sentiment written by one of the greatest authors of fairy tales ever. Only it wasn’t written by Chesterton. It’s by Neil Gaiman who attributed it to Chesterton in his children’s book Coraline. It’s meant to create an analogy in the reader’s mind between the classic fantasy writers and stories of old, with the tale Gaiman is about to tell us. It is a fiction that tells a truth.
Snow follows three ‘fictions,’ that tell many truths. Specifically three separate storylines that all revolve around the Snow White fairy tale, with six actors playing parallel archetypes in each. The first plot is the (historically accurate) story of the real life Grimm brothers. The Grimms were the first to transcribe tales that had previously only been passed down orally in an attempt to preserve the German culture – which was being ruthlessly assaulted during the Napoleonic wars. The second follows a Victorian theatrical family whose lives begin to mirror (pun intended) the Snow White story when Isadora’s stepdaughter begins to usurp her career, personal life, and desires. The third tells the story of Astrid – a modern-day girl living with her abusive mother who is put into a coma and must decide whether or not to wake up. The stories parallel each other in ingenious ways. Griffin has done her research. The refractive lens of each plot line illuminates things in each of the others, and indeed in the Snow White story itself, that we would never have seen by telling any of the stories alone. Griffin has also masterfully used Shakespeare’s Cymbeline as well as a Snow White pantomime to further shed light. The plotlines are unified through the question: Are the deep things that we desire in our heart of hearts – a love that will last forever, someone to save us, hope in a hopeless world – the things epitomized in our stories, actually real?
The idea that “we are all stories in the end” is powerfully explored, as is the nature of goodness – what it means to be good and why goodness does not always lead to happiness. This is most prominent in the Astrid storyline, specifically in the relationship between Astrid and a rather ingenious character – Shadow.
Shadow is one of my favorite things in the whole piece. Played with utter brilliance (there is no other word) by Ryan Clardy, Shadow is the only character who stays constant throughout all the story lines. The physical embodiment of death, he is silent for the entire first half of the play, only appearing (in a form both utterly seductive, and terribly imposing) when he is summoned to give the kiss of death to every character that dies. And a lot of characters die (this is based on the original fairy tales after all.) Shadow finds a soul mate in the all too human Astrid who, stuck in her horribly abusive existence, has, quite literally, been “half in love with death” her entire life. She desperately longs to die and be with him. He, recognizing that she has the potential to revive the heart of the stories that are being lost, is desperate for her to survive.
The cast does a wonderful job, especially with the difficult task of constantly transitioning between roles. But, however different the characters, each ‘track’ is rooted in a unifying archetype.
Maria Deasy brought a human side to the ‘villainous stepmother.’ Showing us the decay from a loving mother into a desperate woman who would do anything to keep what power she has and punishing the people whom she believes to have wronged her. Deasy is the aggressor in most of combat in the show. This seemed to be her weak point as some of the combat either looked false or over rehearsed.
Mark Keeton was the stalwart patriarch. He had the characters with the biggest differences and found a way to show both Jakob Grimm, who always put others first, and Jack, who never put himself last. Keeton was unfortunately difficult to hear, and showed us his hand a bit too blatantly as the amoral Jack. Keeton’s choices felt a bit like two-dimensional sketches of character types.
Gracie Beardsley showed poise and intelligence beyond her years as all of the little girls in the show. Not only having the responsibility of the first death, Beardsley played the only character we got to see after see was dead. Charm, innocence, vengeance and grace (she is aptly named) pour from her as she captivates our heart.
On first glance it appears that Ian Way plays the Prince archetype, however his track is actually rooted much more in the Huntsman role – the good-hearted young man who is ultimately unable to stop the tragedy around him. Way captured the nuances of such a struggle elegantly (in the hands of a lesser actor they would have fallen by the wayside to the detriment of the story.) Way is a charming and strong actor, however there were many moments where he seemed unsure of his lines and some where he seemed lost in thought.
Clardy as mentioned earlier portrays Shadow, the ancient god of death. Shadow is a being who has no choice in his ‘life’ and yet he fought against his fate harder and with more passion than I have seen from many actors on Broadway. Clardy easily slides from sadistic and cruel to protective and vulnerable and brings the audience with him on his journey. Clardy was the heart of this show.
Ashley Griffin pulled double duty as the playwright and actor – playing the Snow White archetypes, Astrid among them. There are times when it is to the benefit of a piece to have the author take part as a cast member, Griffin clearly has a strong connection to the material, and it served the show. It’s hard to think of many actresses who would not only put themselves through the beating this play demands of her roles – both physically and emotionally but attack everything her characters must endure with utter commitment. Griffin also has magnificent chemistry with everyone else on stage, most notably Clardy, which was utterly electric. I almost wish Astrid and Shadow could have their own play. But that is another story, for another time… (pun intended.)
The piece is beautifully, and simply directed by Devin Vogel and takes advantage of traditional storytelling techniques. The six actors tell all three plot lines seamlessly using only a trunk, two chairs, and a single added costume piece to denote each character they play. Music ranging from K-Pop to traditional folk songs are expertly used. Vogel seems to have a great eye and I am looking forward to his next project. I would love to see what he does with a more traditional piece.
The piece is not without it’s flaws. At two hours with no intermission, it pushed the limits of the length a one act can run. And it’s heady themes, and poetic language are a double edged sword. Incredibly beautiful and moving, they require attuned listening – I doubt I got everything I should have on just one viewing, and I am a fantasy fan who was really paying attention. This is a divisive piece – I have a feeling people will either love it, or not understand it at all (I don’t see how anyone could hate it). It is also not a show to go into lightly – while we are apt to be desensitized to the darker things in fairy tales, put incest, abuse, filicide, etc. in a contemporary setting, and they take on a horrifying reality.
Snow is a beautifully ambitious play. I’m curious how it changes and evolves for it’s next incarnation – and I certainly hope it has a next incarnation. This is a play that, while not easy to see, needs to be seen. To quote Griffin it “gives us real truths, not easy morals.”