Late in the second act of Iron Shoes, Kelly Atkins, a member of the ensemble, dons a gauzy purple frock and a pink wig. Wielding a wand that’s knobbed with a small crystal ball, she breaks into song the way that Glinda the Good Witch of Oz might if she had just been released from an asylum. Atkins repeats a phrase in a foreign language that contains the word “esperanza,” translating it into English as, roughly, “Hope is a good night’s rest.” She’s the kind of fairy godmother you’d wish would visit after the ball is over when your carriage has turned back into a pumpkin. And that’s why she’s there.
Her song combines the daffiest of deliveries with that verse of infinite consolation. As the spirit of controlled chaos — that is to say, the spirit of every theatrical production — Atkins’ performance lifts the mood of an already elevated production even higher. She’s on stage to visit one of three girls cursed to wear iron shoes. To free themselves of their heavy burdens, they must journey across distant lands and perform acts of penance. Based on Eastern European fairy tales, akin to the Grimm’s, Shotgun Players and the women’s vocal ensemble Kitka have co-produced and realized a startling and original musical.
Without exception, all that condemnation comes from men. Or in two of the three girls’ cases, male animals — a falcon (Rowena Richie) and a pig (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) who both confirm that, even when they’re disguised in animal hides, men are beasts. Like the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there’s plenty of shape-shifting in Iron Shoes. With the help of fast-paced costume changes, the women in the cast take on multiple roles becoming men, hags, witches and animals. As each actor adopts a new identity, and then changes it again, the one constant is Janet Kutulas’ perfervid score.
Most of the chorus is made up of Kitka members, whose music is “rooted in Balkan, Slavic, and Caucasian women’s vocal traditions.” When they sing together behind the girls, their voices harmonize into rage- and lament-fuelled dirges. Like Lisa Gerrard’s medieval chants and Elizabeth Fraser’s angelic gibberish, the lyrics may be incomprehensible but the emotions are as unambiguous as a punch in the gut. Kate Bush incorporated a similar sound into her 1989 album The Sensual World. When she sings with the Bulgarian vocal group Trio Bulgarka on “Rocket’s Tail,” that same wall of sound commands your attention the way a banshee’s wail does on a moonlit night.
There is no male musical equivalent to the sound because it’s inflected with the history of female subjugation. A man’s broken heart just doesn’t reach into that same deep well. Iron Shoes though is less about vilifying men or even holding them accountable for their noxious behavior. Instead, the musical unites a dozen-plus women in purposeful song. Both Michelle Carter’s book and Erika Chong Shuch’s movement and dance work are informed as much by grimness as by whimsy.
Beth Wilmurt has a featured role as the Narrator, a character who comments on the girls’ stories but stands outside of them.
The Narrator wears black slacks and a sports coat with her hair pulled back. She tells the girls what their labors will be as well as their fates. In doing so, each one begins to question the outcome that’s been assigned to them. First Girl (Sharon Shao) and Second Girl (Angel Adedokun) dispute the idea of their eventual, happy endings. Is marriage with a penitent man worth all the trouble that he caused in the first place? They rebel against what’s expected of them and they rebel against the Narrator, whose head, in the second act, is literally in the stars.
Wilmurt lands in a space portal of sorts, her hair loosened, her outfit changed. She’s admiring the stars and asking them for guidance, chanting the constellations named after women and goddesses: Andromeda, Calliope, Cassiopeia. The scene is as out of place as the sudden arrival of Atkins amusing witch. Collectively, these divertimenti bring an unexpected sense of enchantment to the ivy-covered stage. The events in Iron Shoes and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are taking place concurrently on either side of the same midnight green forest.
Iron Shoes, through May 6, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $25–$40; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org