THE COUNTERFEIT MARQUISE adapted and directed by Kate Cayley, with Lea Ambros, Noah Kenneally and Christina Serra. Through Sunday (February 8) at 9 pm.
A festival of new and revived works. Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Runs through February 22, with weekly program changes, Wednesday-Sunday 8 pm. $15, week pass $20, festival pass $40. 416-975-8555. buddiesinbadtimestheatre.com/theatre_retrorhubarb.php
There's nothing childish in kate Cayley's admission that she's drawn to fairy tales. "Fairy tales and folk tales are both cultural expressions of some kind of anxiety," says the co-founder of feminist collective Stranger Theatre.
Her latest work is an adaptation of 17th-century French author Charles Perrault's The Counterfeit Marquise, in which a young boy is raised as a girl so his aristocratic mother won't have to lose him to war.
She's staging it as a transvestite puppet show. Talk about a striking combination of elements.
"Perrault was the first collector of fairy tales - Cinderella, Snow White - and most of his stories are so conventional - instructional guides on how children ought to live," says Cayley, who with Stranger Theatre has collaborated on shows like East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon, The Clown Of God and The Yellow Wallpaper.
"This piece is for adults and completely reverses Perrault's position on the status quo. On the one hand, it seems to uphold it, for the mother adheres to what's proper for a boy and a girl. But since the child isn't really female, the piece subverts the societal standard."
Cayley originally conceived The Counterfeit Marquise as a brief work to precede a longer piece, but she later decided it could stand alone as a small show.
"Rhubarb! is the ideal place to present it, since the festival tries to create tiny, perfect works. I don't want to overwhelm the story by making it bigger. It's best at 20 minutes. Its strength is its slightness, the fact that it's both elliptical and elusive."
Puppets are the ideal medium for telling the story, especially hand and shadow puppets, which lend delicacy and subtlety to the telling.
"A puppet has a fineness of expression and beauty that a human actor can't get at. It can also express a thoughtfulness, a pensiveness, without getting heavy.
"My first image for the show was an ornate music box, and I wanted to explore that aesthetic, which is linked to the drag element in the story, of enjoying and performing another gender. Puppets seemed the best way to express that intricacy.
"The result isn't just a glittering, fairy-tale love story. It's also about the rejection of biological gender. It's not at all innocent."