Spoleto review: Kneehigh Theatre’s “The Red Shoes”

There’s theatre, and then there’s Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre‘s The Red Shoes, which I was lucky enough to see at Spoleto yesterday.

Based on the macabre story by Hans Christian Andersen, Kneehigh’s giddy performance was by turns absurd and inspiring, nerve-rattling and delightful.

What happens when an obsession gets the best of us? When those red shoes — that have gotten us into so much trouble, that we have worn so vainly — decide they are going to keep dancing on their own, no matter what our feet want them to do? Those who know the traditional story can guess the answer: we get our feet chopped off.

By the time that beautifully staged moment rolls around, Kneehigh’s five awesomely talented performers and two live musicians — all clad in white jockey shorts and t-shirts for much of the time — have already taken the audience on a dark, funny trip. The simple stage relies on doors that can fold in various ways to move the action to settings as diverse as church and butcher shop, while the catwalk makes the perfect spot for the imperious drag queen and fishing-pole-wielding narrator Lady Lydia who pushes the scenes along. Except when she doesn’t.

The boldness of the staging was more than matched by the expertise of the performers, who brought a wonderful physical daring — sometimes even a slapstick sensibility — that matched the over-exaggerated expressions that would have been perfect in the days of silent film.

After seeing The Red Shoes, I’m sure I’ll look for Kneehigh to make another trip to Spoleto (or anywhere else nearby).

The versatile Memminger Auditorium was packed for the afternoon performance on Saturday. It’s a great venue. Like Gallim Dance at Spoleto last year, the production team left much of the backstage area open — a great choice that was a perfect for the themes of the show. And at one key moment near the end, when the protagonist is about to be escorted off the Earth, a ladder in the far distance took on a sudden beauty.