The vicious moral meat-cleaver of Hans Christian Andersen thunks into the liberated whimsy of Emma Rice and London's Kneehigh Theatre (Brief Encounter) in The Red Shoes, an alluring but confused splatter-pattern of pomo story-theater. Rice, reviving a show she created nearly a decade ago, stages Andersen's tale as a loose variety hour performed by four zombified institutional types, heads shaved, clad only in grungy undies (cf. John Doyle's Sweeney Todd). These sunken-eyed unfortunates are directed, on a nearly bare stage, by the mysterious drag queen Lady Lydia (Giles King), who looks like he escaped from the Depp Aisle of Tim Burton's secret cloning operation.
Lady Lydia selects one of these meat puppets (Patrycja Kujawska) to play The Girl, an orphan adopted by a blind, pious dowager (Dave Mynne), who becomes obsessed with a pair of bewitching red shoes. Much to her adopted mother's horror, the shoes encourage her to indulge her fleshly passions and stray from Christ's light (here a weak fluorescent "X")--in short, to dance. And we all know where dancing leads. (Spoiler alert: HELL.) As in Andersen's original, the shoes take over and threaten to dance The Girl to death: Kujawska executes her emphatically un-balletic, beautifully lead-footed choreography to pained perfection. (Her whole body moans, without making a sound.)
Still, The Girl remains The Girl, i.e. not really a fully evolved character. And The Red Shoes, despite its ghostly gorgeousness, isn't fully evolved. The ensemble is spectacular (with special kudos going to Kujawska and the pouty sad-sack Mike Shepherd), but before long, the show begins to shuffle and stumble in its baggy structure, lost in a rag-and-bone approach to theme: a little war imagery here, some religion-ribbing there, a bit of feminism for spice, a dash of bloody foot-puppetry just for kicks. The visuals are searing, but LadyLydia's needle-y versifying feels like a loose fit with what we're seeing. "Soles that with / The Devil have danced!" she cries into her mike, "That's what all you girls need!" Perhaps, but what us girls really need, first and foremost, is some cogent dramaturgy.
The Red Shoes is at St. Ann's Warehouse through December 12.