Courtesy photoMaking magic: From left

'Wild Bride' is a devilishly entertaining fairy tale

The Devil drives a hard bargain and plays a mean blues. He can whip up a punishing snowstorm and send legions of men into war on a whim.  And the hurt he brings into a young girl’s life is epic.

The best fairy tales have always been a mix of the magical and the macabre, and “The Wild Bride” achieves an ideal blend.  

Emma Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre production, which premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last week, is no cuddly bedtime story.  Deliciously dark and endlessly imaginative, it turns a minor tale from Grimm’s into a gripping theatrical event.

It starts with the Devil, who offers a poor father a life of luxury in exchange for an apple tree. It’s a trick, of course — too late, the father realizes his daughter is part of the deal. To escape the Devil’s unspeakable cruelty, the Girl runs deep into the forest, where she wanders for years. It’s a bleak and harrowing journey.

The Kneehigh production supplies the magic.  

Rice and company — who made “Brief Encounter” a Broadway hit — perform the work in song, rhymed speech, dance and stylized gestures. Six actors, singing and playing multiple instruments — guitars, fiddles, accordion and banjo — play all the roles.  

Bill Mitchell’s set, a fantastic assemblage of ladders and leafless trees, yields wonders: a painting comes to life with the addition of human hands; a rack of hanging light bulbs becomes a grove of pear trees.

The resourceful cast stays in constant motion, morphing seamlessly between spoken scenes (text and lyrics by Carl Grose) to Stu Barker’s folk-tinged songs and Etta Murfitt’s whirling choreography.  

Stuart McLoughlin excels as the gritty, down-home Devil; Stuart Goodwin makes a strong double turn as Father and Prince.  Audrey Brisson, whose singing voice is soulful and velvety, plays the Girl’s youthful scenes with touching vulnerability; Patrycja Kujawska and Eva Magyar, both agile and intensely focused, assume the role later in the character’s journey. Ian Ross anchors the band.

Together, they give the two-hour show a spontaneous feel. In the second half, the magic unfolds with an organic sense of power.  

Severed limbs grow back; what’s lost is found again.  No one will ever be the same, Rice suggests, but redemption is possible even in the most horrific tales.

“The Wild Bride” is a wild ride.  Anyone who believes in magic should see it.

The Wild Bride
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes Jan. 1
Tickets: $14.50 to $73
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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