In The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettleheim looked at fairy tales with an eye to a child's own psychic struggles. While remaining sensitive to the poetic values of these traditional narratives, he meditated on their unconscious appeal. What crucial, hidden messages do they encode, he asked, that makes them exert such a powerful hold on the young mind. What are all these witches and forests, magic spells, quests and trials telling the child about his own evolving personality? In a sense, Bettleheim approached fairy tales as though they were dreams.
As with dreams, or any vital work of art, there is no simple formula to explain the relationship between the symbol and the symbolized. The symbol lives. It carries more energy and more meaning than can be expressed by any one word on the other side of an equal sign. But the symbol is not totally unknowable, either. We can talk about the kinds of associations it evokes. There is a clear difference between the wolf and the fairy godmother, between the inept father and the vicious stepmother.
One of the associations that Bettleheim makes is between the witch of the fairy tale and the angry mother of real life -- for a child is dependent on its mother, and terrified by the sudden violence of a mother's rage. This Bettleheimian attitude must have been floating around in the back of my brain recently, while I sat amid a group of mothers and their offspring watching a delightful musical retelling of Rapunzel at True Brew. For the whole story suddenly seemed to me like a dream that a child might have about an overprotective mother.
In Rapunzel, the father is too passive. A witch lives next door and he yields to the mother's dangerous suggestions about stealing from the witch's garden. He is caught. In payment for sparing him, the witch demands the couple's first-born child. Once she has the baby, she locks it up in a tower that has no door. The child must be totally dependent, must not venture out in the world. Of course a prince arrives, and the only result of the witch's insane possessiveness is tragedy -- a temporary tragedy, for life will find a way.
The version of Rapunzel at the True Brew was written by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, a writing team most famous for creating the TV sitcom Friends, although their stage work includes Jekyll and Hyde. As is usually the case nowadays, the story is told in a jokey, upbeat manner -- a miniature musical comedy for kids. Almost inevitably, given that impetus, there is a humorous subplot involving the witch. The prince's servant courts her in order to distract her from her daughter's dalliance. The witch falls in love, becomes vulnerable and suffers betrayal. In the end, she gets her own "happily ever after" when the servant finally returns her love. They marry and settle down to domestic bliss in the doorless tower.
What struck me was the curious rightness of this silly and superficial addition to the plot. For while it undercuts the dark, brooding, evocative quality of the tale, it responds to the story's deeper meaning. Once the witch has a life of her own, she can let the daughter go. It's a sitcom solution, but as apt as it is cheerful.
Gary Rucker directed Rapunzel. The style was simple, effective and full of charm. A visual feast it was not: a few free-standing backdrops and some basic costumes (both could be a bit more elaborate with no loss to the improvisational, make-believe mood). The music by Michael Skloff (who also scored Friends and Jekyll and Hyde) was snappy and enjoyable. Music director Helen Maxwell played the solo piano.
The cast seemed to be having a good time with the material -- and that communicated to the audience. Prince Gary Rucker and maiden Robyn Menzel were an amusing pair of melodic young lovers, while Diane Bosilevac created a vivacious and amiably evil witch (though I kept wishing for a green complexion -- especially in light of a line that calls attention to her emerald hue). Greg Stratton brought to the prince's servant a sort of charismatic somnolence that reminded me of TV's Mr. Rogers. Judging by my 4-year-old daughter's joyous shouts of "Wogers!" whenever the Perry Como of Kiddieland took off his cardigan and put on his sneakers, I imagine Stratton would have many toddler fans.
Mary Duran, producer of Rapunzel, says the show will return to True Brew Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in January. That's good news. This is a lovely little outing both you and your child will enjoy.
- Rapunzel (Robyn Menzel) gets a tempting offer from the evil witch (Diane Bosilevac) in True Brew's recent offering of Rapunzel.