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‘Iron Shoes’ a magical, modern fairy tale

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The multi-talented ensemble of “Iron Shoes” includes, from left, Melanie Elms, Rowena Richie and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. (Courtesy Ben Krantz Studio)

Shotgun Players’ latest world premiere “Iron Shoes,” a multidisciplinary fairytale for modern times, feels seductively mysterious even before it begins, with its darkly textured, concave upstage wall, dripping vines and colorful, geometrically patterned floor design (set by Sean Riley) that evokes an ancient Slavic world.

Over the course of two acts — the second a sort of corrective makeover of the first — the play re-envisions three Eastern European folk tales, mixing formal, once-upon-a-time syntax with contemporary vernacular, and conjuring a female-centric 21st-century morality tale.

Everything coalesces in this beautifully conceived, designed and executed production: Michelle Carter’s script, at various times hilarious (“It’s like Monty Python!” chortled an audience member), melancholy and tragic; Janet Kutulas’ haunting music, originally composed as a song cycle for Kitka, the Oakland-based all-women ensemble long known for its repertoire of traditional Eastern European songs; director Erika Chong Shuch’s witty and at times exquisite choreography and overall vision; the powerful, even unearthly voices of Kitka; and the colorful and wonderfully exaggerated storybook-ish costumes, including a crazy collection of Russian-style embroidered and patterned skirts and aprons and bell sleeves, medieval pointed hats and flowing gowns (costumes by Alina Bokovikova).

Then there are the 15 multitalented performers, composed of the Kitka ensemble and local actors — all singing, dancing, moving with acrobatic ease, some occasionally playing a musical instrument.

They form complex patterns in perfect harmony on the tiny stage, embodying multiple characters apiece. To name a few: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart’s snorting pig king, Caitlin Tabancay Austin’s bereft armless woman, Rowena Richie’s seemingly airborne falcon, and Travis Santell Rowland, the one man in the cast, in a virtual parade of comic roles.

In Act 1, a brisk narrator in a black pantsuit with a microphone (Beth Wilmurt) tells the three stories. They all have a young woman as an innocent victim of a calamity who is forced to wander the world, bereft, in a pair of heavy and painful iron shoes. Ultimately all three trudge along together.

There’s a clever meta aspect to the proceedings, as the three women beg the narrator to alter the script, to relieve them of their suffering, but she insists she’s powerless; their roles are proscribed, their doom sealed.

Her tiny apprentice (gifted teenager Erolina Kamburova) longs to help the victims.

In Act 2, things change in wondrous ways.

Shotgun Players is always ahead of the curve in producing work by and about women. This one’s pure magic.

REVIEW
Iron Shoes
Presented by Shotgun Players and Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes May 6
Tickets: $25 to $48
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org

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