Who says a play needs to be about one thing? Well, lots of people do, and yet often the most exciting theatre transcends its ostensible theme in favor of ambitious storytelling that eschews focus in favor of evocative theatricality.
Pipeline Theatre Company, a young downtown Manhattan group, has thrown itself commendably into a play with such an ambition: The Ash Girl by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, most famous for her politically-charged Tony-nominated play Our Country’s Good. The Ash Girl is an expansive adaptation of the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, and attempts to explore the fairy tale world through myriad theatrical devices and a panorama of characters from the Cinderella type (who goes by Ash Girl because she sleeps in ash) to her talking animal pals to personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins. In telling its simple story, the play explores a variety of themes, from the more common ones of loneliness or hope, to the more contemporary ones of immigrant alienation.
The Pipeline crew really throws themselves into the work and as a result has crafted an engaging, intimate two hours. The audience sits on stage surrounding a malleable playing space that transforms impressively between the various scenes and takes well to the atmospheric lighting. Director Jessika Doyel’s pacing is brisk and controlled while stopping to breathe when necessary, and the large, committed cast really establishes the size of the play’s world. And as the lead character, Meagan Kensil, through her stillness and wonderfully expressive eyes, maintains an air of gravity at the show’s center to constantly counteract the more colorful and excitable theatricality.
And yet their fine work can’t compensate for a text that rarely progresses past superficial cleverness. The Ash Girl might be admirably ambitious, but its themes flitter on the surface while the situations never delve any deeper or pose any room for serious contemplation. And in probably the most theatrically evocative scenes, which take place in the deep allegory of the murky forest, Wertenbaker’s tendency to ostentatiously overwrite proves distraction from any visceral unease. Where this approach to Cinderella as a concept seems promising, the execution comes off as too cutesy and self-satisfied to offer any real confrontation.
All told, there’s much in the play itself that could result in a weighed-down show, but Pipeline provides enough energy to compensate with an enjoyable evening of often adorable fairy tale entertainment.