Macha Monkey’s Sweet Nothing, a (grim) fairytale at Annex Theatre

Jason Sharp and Libby Barnard in Macha Monkey’s production of Sweet Nothing (a grim fairy tale) by Stephanie Timm. Courtesy of Macha Monkey.

In an interview with New Century Theatre Company, of which she’s a co-founder, playwright Stephanie Timm states that she admires a particular play (Ironmistress, by April Angelis) because “it’s heightened, poetic, theatrical, funny, dark, scary, beautiful, and ugly.” In high praise she continues,  “I really wish I’d written it.” This approbation may provide a helpful start in understanding the dramatist’s tastes, at least the several she’s immediately inclined to articulate in describing a dramatic work she admires. But Timm’s tastes as a reader or audience member don’t necessarily align with her decisions as a writer, or perhaps they do to varying degrees.

For Sweet Nothing, a (grim) fairytale, Timm has been lauded–in press, in the Annex lobby after the show, by my peers–for having turned the fairytale genre on its ear. But I disagree. Timm doesn’t bastardize or confuse the genre; she recalls its roots, a point made plain in the title’s reference to The Bothers Grimm, whose enduringly famous and tremendously dark, folkloric fantasies would launch so many 20th century cartoons and heart-warming reductions.

A fact not trumped by Disney, the Grimms’ fairytales were also used as propaganda by the Third Reich which, in an effort to encourage nationalism, asserted that a copy of the collected works should be owned by every German family. It would be silly to suggest that folk tales, so many wrought with descriptions of captivity, disfiguration, brutalizing evil, suicide, suffering, and malevolence, don’t by heritage represent something of a conversation with the sinister, a history reaching back well beyond The Brothers Grimm.

The gloom of classic folklore, while perhaps a bit icky or dubious on our modern palate, was deliberately engineered, and functional. It was designed, in addition to appealing to gruesome fascinations, to disincline children to venture into the woods alone, to allow the stranger into the home, to recklessly transgress. They were cautionary tales, their perversity largely intended to encourage and reiterate morality and good sense. They were meant to scare us straight. In them goodness wasn’t necessarily stressed at a means to a reward, but badness as an impetus for a downfall. What’s more, they’re also “heightened, poetic, beautiful…”–good fodder for a writer like Timm, with her espoused fascinations and interests.

If one’s to thoroughly understand and appreciate Sweet Nothing, it ought to be with with an eye on the traditions of olde that the work is approached. Playing with classic tropes–the three sisters, the cabin in the woods, the dangerous wolf–the play, like so many enduring fairytales, emerges from the depravity of the circumstances it’s couched in to arrive at a productive, educating, meaningful message.

The play is set in a bleak and desolate world, ravaged by a bygone war. Food is scarce, hope is clung to with desperation, and a pervasive emptiness and the seeming inevitableness of an equally empty future assert themselves constantly. It’s amid such bleakness that three sisters–Violet, Lily and Iris (Samantha Leeds, Libby Barnard, Monica Finney)–struggle alone to survive, rationing what little sustenance remains behind the locked doors of their once-glamorous home. The clock ticks as they inch toward likely starvation, or death (or worse) at the hands of The Wolves, which circle with terrible diligence.

Sweet Nothing begins with Iris and Lily preparing Violet, the youngest and most naive, for a bittersweet departure: She’s engaged to marry a man she hasn’t met, who lives some inconceivable distance away, in another land. There looms for Violet the possibility of misery upon reaching her destination, but she’s already miserable in the ramshackle cabin the hapless siblings share–a misery softened only somewhat by the young ladies’ mutually bolstering affection, which doesn’t put food in stomaches. Or perhaps she’ll find deep happiness when she reaches her new home? Violet departs on her lonely journey through the treacherous woods, leaving her sisters alone to aspire to better futures of their own.

Hope is a complicated motivator, sometimes compelling us to strive for betterment, sometimes eclipsing good sense and consequently exacerbating distress. With Violet departed, Lily’s hope begins to run away with her. Being the youngest of the remaining sisters, she perceives of an entitlement to be next to be engaged to be married. Her libido, her imagination, and her adolescent angst work magic on her, driving her into a tizzy. But Iris, probably so named for her keen perceptive abilities, is not drawn in by the fantasia of Lily’s dreams and urges. She wishes for her sister a life of security and peace, not romantic adventure. What’s more, Iris doesn’t want to be left alone. The disagreement between Iris and Lily is insidiously divisive, and paves the way for a Cold War neither acknowledges expressly.

A maimed wolf (Jason Sharp) enters the picture, breaking into the sisters’ home, claiming to be “the new mailman,” his intentions maddeningly suspect. He’s debonair; he’s impossibly urbane. As he’s subdued by the sisters, chained to a chair, the main question of the play is posed: What will the sisters do with their captive? Can they believe his pleas and supplications, his espousals of friendly intentions? If not, do they have it in them to inflict serious harm on the intruder? If so, can they risk freeing him from thralldom? Amid his tribulation The Wolf remains cavalier and poised, never so much as raising his voice, so as not to arouse suspicions of violent capability. But is the mere fact that he is a wolf, by popular understanding a born killer, sufficient grounds for keeping him bound or executing him, as the sisters threaten? Static emerges between the sisters’ prejudices and the evidence with which they’re confronted. Through this Iris and Lily must devise a course of action. Will they do this on collaboration, or covertly, either sister working against the thoughts or instincts of the the other?

Lily’s inner dreamer, her raging and generally selfish tendency to hope, make her very ripe to be influenced by The Wolf. The playing out of compounding disagreements between Lily and Iris crescendo to a complete and satisfying climax for the drama. Unfortunately this is undercut by a tagged-on flashback, which softens the final effect of Sweet Nothing‘s already-complete narrative, with its mostly-closed ending.

The flab of the flashback may be reflective of the writer’s tendency to underuse the red pen. The dramatic building blocks of the play, the plotting out of the actions of her characters and the establishment of sufficient motivations, are solid and thorough. But the elevated language of Sweet Nothing, the constant use of synonyms, alliteration, and half-rhyme, overextends its functionality as a verbal aesthetic, and becomes monotonous, at times even predictable. Or perhaps the challenge of handling Timm’s poetry aloud–which is a source of success in the case of some actors, struggle in others–is the root of this rigidity? My suspicion is that actors may have been under-directed in this regard. Some swim in sonority; some intone to metronomes.

I’m particularly interested in seeing, writing about, and nurturing the original works of Seattle artists. Sweet Nothing, a (grim) fairytale, is the kind of show that I look forward to entering into conversation with: one which showcases a seizing cross-section of local ability, which challenges itself to stand on two feet without qualification. Macha Monkey has a fan in me, the last several of their shows I’ve seen having been ambitious, thoughtful, and cared for with sensitivity.

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