Weak Robber

The folks at Masquerade Theatre produced some of the best tiny-budget, small-cast, head-shaking wow-what-a-wicked-good-show-that-was sort of musicals during their inaugural season last year. Thus, they are allowed, even obliged -- given that we learn most from our mistakes -- to produce a big fat egg now and again.

The Robber Bridegroom, directed by Christopher Ayres and currently up at the appealing little shoebox of a theater in the Heights, would be that egg, stinking to the heavens, I might add.

The '70s musical, composed by Robert Waldman and based on a 1942 Eudora Welty novella (which was based on a fairy tale recorded by the ever grim Grimm Brothers) had a bit of success back in 1976. It started off-Broadway, featuring a very young Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone, and then moved to Broadway, where it received pretty terrific reviews. "Sparkles" and "deft" were some of the adjectives used to describe the show.

But given the production at Masquerade, it's hard to image this lumbering, inane play -- replete with backwoods, black-toothed white-trash hicks from an imaginary town on the Natchez Trace -- ever shining like any sort of jewel. The fantasy story has dark and almost mythic potential. Gentleman bandit Jamie Lockheart snakes his way into the good graces of rich farmer Clement Musgrove. Of course Clement's got a daughter Rosamund, and she needs marrying off -- this is a fairy tale, after all. And who would be a better mate for the yellow-haired fairest girl than the first flimflam stranger who struts along?

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Of course Rosamund has already snuggled up with some sort of elusive masked man in the deepest corners of the forest. And this fellow, who won't ever show her his face, has stolen her heart after he's knocked her upside the head and had his way with her a few times.

This is a dark tale indeed, about love and its ability to twist its way into the nether reaches of our psyche and its capacity to force us to reveal things about ourselves, things we would prefer to keep hidden away. Lockheart is aptly named. He wants to love Rosamund but he doesn't want her to know it's him. He keeps his identity and his face locked away. And thus he struggles with a powerful paradox: how to have love and absolute privacy at once. Impossible, he discovers. To love her he must reveal himself to her. But he refuses. Before they make love he punches her out and shrugs his apology out to the audience, saying, "I like it like that." In other words, he likes it as long as she is not too present, too conscious, too close.

There is great potential in the gothic creepiness of this story, none of which is tapped by the Masquerade's cartoonish production. It is simply not funny when a man punches out a woman before he has sex with her. And when these moments are treated as if they were all in slapstick good humor, they come off as labored at best and absurdly offensive at worst.

Waldman's score, which is supposed to recall a sort of twangy Southern bluegrass sound complete with fiddle and banjo, has none of the aching and plainspoken charm of true-life bluegrass. And no matter how heartily accompanist Chih Wei Liu played the lone electric piano with which the actors sang, she simply could not make the feeble little keyboard into the full bluegrass band needed for this rather stodgy, stiff music. Thus the actors struggled mightily to make this music take off.

Certainly, Luther Chakurian's Lockheart deserves praise. His voice took a while to get comfortable (as did the entire cast), but eventually he took full command of the stage and his own warm and lovely voice, becoming every bit of the sexy, charismatic ne'er-do-well that could charm the skin off a snake. Gregory Ayres as Goat, the town ninny, came off way too broad and over the top with all his butt scratching. However, his duet with Jeremy Pierce, "Deeper In the Woods," provided perhaps the only truly gorgeous moment of the night. It is during this song that Lockheart and Rosamund fall in love as they travel further and further into the woods. Though the staging of the song (basically Lockheart and Rosamund walk around and around the stage through the other actors' arms, which were held out to function as tree branches) became almost mind-numbingly repetitious, the sound of Ayres's tender and deeply felt voice was almost enough reason to sit through this very long production twice.

The other actors worked hard but failed to bring their characters to life. Sarah Wuensche's Rosamund was not nearly sassy enough to make the show's one live-wire tune, "Nothin' Up," spark fire. Additionally, her voice was too thin to handle the entire range of Rosamund's music. Kevin Hames as Clement Musgrove sort of lollygagged about the stage without conviction; he seemed not to know what to do with his arms and hands. Amy Ross was terrifically energetic as Salome Musgrove, Rosamund's evil, ugly stepmother. Her character, though, was so much a cartoon that it, like many of the other cartoon characters, undermined the darker potential of the play.

Obviously, the play is not intended to be dead serious. Neither are many of the fairy tales we hear. But The Robber Bridegroom, like much folklore, is full of psychological complexity. A stronger production would have tapped into all that emotional potential.

The Robber Bridegroom runs through November 22 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 N. Shepherd Drive. 861-7045. $10-$15.

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