I was not feeling particularly delighted when I nestled into my seat at Company XIV‘s stage production of Snow White. Firstly, the theater smelled like a brothel before Yankee Candle Company was invented (intentionally, I assume), and Sundays are the last day I want to be getting all experimental with my olfactory receptors. All. Organs. Ache. Even my ability to laugh is usually squandered at this point– lolz are wasted on the youth, am I right? So when this baroque, gyrating, barely-clothed, indulgent mishmash of Versailles’s gaudiest decor, the charming Weimar cabaret, classical ballet, pole dancing, and remnants of the Brothers Grimm managed to turn my bottom-grazing sulk into 100-percent authentic laughter and delight, I was so, so happy I’d crawled out of my bed to be with Company XIV’s Snow White.
Perhaps you remember Company XIV from last year’s naughty Nutcracker Rouge production. The fabulous costumes of Zane Pihlstrom remained seriously up to par at this show (Pihlstrom sets the bar high) and possibly surpassed the ones in Rouge. But it was Snow White‘s perfect blend of physical prowess, draggy audaciousness, and unabashed devotion to camp that kept this writer entertained.
Company XIV’s bread and butter is taking fairy tales and classics and giving them a lush, sometimes lusty “burlesque spin,” as founder and artistic director Austin McCormick explained it. This is actually the company’s third iteration of Snow White. “We’ve been toying with this story for several years. We did a version at our space in Brooklyn for children, believe it or not,” laughed McCormick, who also choreographed and directed the show. “And then we did another version that was a little bit darker, for all ages. This one is our third, and it’s obviously much more for adults.”
This particular rendition of Snow White leans heavily on sex appeal (nip slips are a real threat), as well as flashy, near-experimental visual points and a flamboyant, twerking hilarity that’s come to define Company XIV. But it also celebrated the power of its female performers and rejected genders norms of all kinds along the way. These things in particular go against the original interpretation of Snow White, usually a rather grim fairy tale when it comes to the portrayal of women and, you know, feminist progress over the last two centuries or so.
It’s surprising, then, that McCormick was so into staying true to the original storyline, at least at the play’s most basic structure. “I looked really closely at the Brothers Grimm version, in the German, for the origin of the story,” he explained.
The opening sequence of Snow White begins something like a striptease. We’re introduced to the Queen (Laura Careless). Prone as she is to Jekyll-and-Hyde switches, she goes back and forth between a rageful serpentine snaggletooth with seriously low self-esteem, and a profoundly vain and perfectly coiffed party girl. The Queen’s minions are twinkish boy-men clad in fishnets and heels. They dance (mostly) wordlessly around stage, and are just as scantily clad as the corseted, lingerie-spackled women in the play. Only a thin layer of whip-tight sparkly thong lies between audience and any given bulge. Since she’s Queen of presumably everything, she’s super into taking turns with her boy slaves, and several humpy choreography choices get the point across.
The Queen whips around furiously on stage like a restless lioness, at once voguing to her imaginary fans and careening about her palace like no one’s watching her. When she’s done with that, a buzzcut-rocking Snow White (Hilly Bodin) emerges to take back the scene and challenge traditional, Disney-fied notions of “beauty.” For one, she turns the question: “Where’s Snow White’s ‘hair as black as raven’s wings’?” into “Howabout, who cares?”
“I love the fact that Hilly, who plays Snow White, she has a bit of edge– she has the shaved head and a classic ballet background,” McCormick said. “But she also has more agency and bite to her than I think most people playing that roll would bring to it.”
As such, you’ll find no dowdy, ankle-length wool number covering this broad’s bod, nor a childish hair bow worn by the eternally teenaged, creepy female ideal etched into so, so many male brains. Instead, Bodin’s butt is (obviously) hanging out. But there wasn’t a moment that I felt bad for Snow White– there’s a huge difference between confidently mooning and looking like you lost your bikini bottom somewhere in the pool. Bodin was a pro at flipping and turning and spinning without any slippage or awkwardness whatsoever, so I reasoned the actress is at least somewhat empowered by the costume choice, and that Snow White is definitely liberated by the sexed-up garb.
Feeling unwatched, Snow White takes her turn nuzzling with the boy slaves, only to be sort of ew about it at the last minute when they start to reciprocate her entreaties. She pushes them away with a mix of coyness and flirtatious flittiness. But no means no and she’s adamant.
Since this is naive little Snow White and not a fully-fledged woman human yet, she’s wont to make some silly mistakes. Her first grave error is to playfully pick up the Queen’s wig and try it on for size. Of course, the Queen busts in and is all, “What the ever loving fuck?” The regal lady, feeling sudden doubt as to her own beauty in the face of this young thing’s dewey gleam, then proceeds to consult her magic mirror. You know the rest.
While the story’s a predictable one in many ways, Company XIV’s presentation of this fairy tale is anything but. Sure, it’s easy to do a “sexy Snow White,” but they managed to make it hilarious. Truth be told, it was only when I realized it was OK to laugh (and it took the rest of the audience about as long to let em rip, too) that I really started to enjoy Snow White’s various slip-ups and the Queen’s increasingly bonkers murder strategies (the best being the Queen’s plot to disguise herself and her boy toys as corset merchants).
The production is probably not going to win a call from Gloria Steinem, but, as an added bonus, it fits neatly into a contemporary context of female empowerment and gender nonconformism, as opposed to reflecting past (stupid) mores. “I really wanted to focus on the character of the Queen and Laura Careless has been in the company since the very beginning,” McCormick explained. “She’s an amazing collaborator, and an amazing dramatic actress, so it’s a natural fit to capture her in that roll. So must of what you’re experiencing in the show is the psychology behind the Queen’s quest to be the fairest. I wanted it to be, in a way, from her perspective.”
McCormick emphasized that “gender bending” is “very much a signature” of Company XIV. “I love that things are fluid and interchangeable, men are dressed as women, women are dressed as men, and we sort of play with that dynamic,” he explained. “When the Prince walks out, played by a woman wearing stilettos, and she does this amazing circus act, I find that really surprising and exciting. So I hope the audience does that too.”
While the lead cast gets plenty of focus and opportunity for humorous meanderings, it’s the showgirls (Marcy Richardson and employees of the omnipresent cabaret, one that’s usually amorphous until it turns into a real place where Snow White crashes while she’s on the lam) who insert dirty jokes and tee-hee utterances when they’re needed most. But, more importantly, they propel the story, sketch the outlines of the play’s reality, and are allowed to be “funny girls” without being “ugly girls.”
The costumes, as to be expected from Company XIV, were mind-blowing in there garishness– no ornate historical reference was left untapped: from the court of Louis XIV to a fantastical traveling circus. It was, however, difficult to tell if the “seven little men”– as they were often breathily referred to by the narrator (Marcy Richardson) to resounding laughter– were a real part of the play at all. Yes, there were the Queen’s minions, and a flock of boy-deer with impressive antlers, but if you’re a purist, this unfortunate lack in Company XIV’s take on Snow White might be somewhat disappointing. But, hey, at least there weren’t any problematic portrayals of little people to contend with.
What Company XIV does do to add to this tale-as-old-as-time, is cast a distinctly gender-bending element (e.g., the Prince is playOsed what came off as an impromptu pole dance number in which the narrator and showgirl Marcy Richardson proved she could hold her own working the ol’ slippery rod any night of the week at Pumps.
The hands-down best display of wow-level physical performance goes down at the end of the play when the androgynous Der Prinz (Courtney Giannone) shows up to save Snow White. Jumping inside a giant, hyper-symbolic gold ring (or enormous hula hoop, you be the judge), Der Prinz takes to spinning, slowly losing all contact with the floor and seemingly with gravity. It’s a wonder that not one drop of puke hits the stage. Giannone’s sense of balance and perfect coordination is so impressive, the audience seemed to be holding its breath. Even the performers writhing in the background shadows seemed to be watching intently with crossed fingers.
Actually, when you consider the number of different registers, sets, costumes, and plot twists interweaving and exploding out from every angle, it’s a miracle the cast wasn’t so dizzy from all the switch-ups so as to be nauseous. (Even the stage feels four-dimensional, with staircases leading up, poles to spin around, projections flickering in and out, and mobile, modular pieces jumbling the frame up like a puzzle.) As my friend in tow whispered, “It’s like they had no editing process at all.” We imagined the playwright screaming, “BRING ME BRITNEY SPEARS.” But a falsetto-heavy rendition of “Toxic” just had to do.
“We love to use eclectic music,” McCormick explained. “And my background is in Baroque court dance, that’s why the company is called Company XIV, it’s an homage to Louis the XIV.” The resulting “pop songs with a classical makeover” function as interludes that arrived seemingly just as things were starting to get too, well, old (as in, to true to the Brothers Grimm). Think of them as pop relief. Tove Lo’s “Talking Body” makes an appearance, as does YouTube star Troye Sivan’s “Bite.”
Additionally, there’s an element of pre-War cabaret. The narrator, Marcy Richardson, unapologetically parlays and sings in Berliner Deutsch (classics like Franz Schubert’s “Serenade”) with a very few English words inserted here and there for guidance. “I like the rhythm of the German,” McCormick explained. “It adds another sound element, and the atmosphere of that whole German-cabaret-Weimar thing.”
Sure, the code switching in Snow White can be totally absurd at times, but without this lush, mixed-media brocade of ridiculousness, the play just wouldn’t have been the same joyously campy affair it turned out to be. As for the gender dynamics, they bring the play right up to the here-and-now, and flaunt their rebellion against the binary without a second thought. “Bye,” those stilettos are saying as they scrape across the stage.
Company XIV’s Snow White runs now through March 12, 2016 at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane). Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 5 pm. Tickets: $40 to $65, and VIP seating $75 to $105.