During a previous chat with Mike Shepherd, the joint artistic director of Kneehigh Theatre and one of the principal actors in the Spoleto Festival USA production of The Red Shoes, he spoke of how the play’s run was once cut short in Beijing, China. According to Shepherd, the show was becoming increasingly popular among the people, and the powers-that-be simply didn’t like it. In Shepherd’s opinion, the Chinese government found The Red Shoes to be subversive.

After finally seeing The Red Shoes up-close-and-personal, I think Shepherd’s right — Kneehigh’s latest is a subversive little treat, one that balances moments of seriousness and dread with silliness and daring stagecraft. (Who would have thought at a fishing rod could be such a useful tool?) On Friday night, from the moment audience members entered the Memminger Auditorium — which was a little sticky and stuffy — they were confronted with a decidedly out-of-the-ordinary theater-going experience.

For starters, several of the performers were playing music in the waiting room leading to the seating area. While that in and of itself is not so terribly shocking, the actors’ appearance was — they were a particularly dishevelled and gloomy lot with raccoon-ringed, dead-eye stares, and in the case of one performer, Giles King (the show’s fur-coat-wearing, crossdressing narrator Lady Lydia), sporting a ghoulish slap of white makeup, transforming his face into something of a skull.

Inside the theater proper, the other members of the troupe stood at the wings of the stages, wearing nothing more than ratty white underwear and undershirts, looking confused and muttering to themselves. Other times, the same actors wandered up and down the aisles, and on at least two occasions crossed an entire row, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable, curious, and buzzing with a level of excitement that few performances achieve before the so-called curtain rises.

The Red Shoes, directed and adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fable by Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, offers audience members a thought-provoking and imaginative work that takes place on a small stage with two small metal staircases on either side leading up to a platform. And from that perch, Lydia directs the actions of his troupe, who appear to be little more than his prisoners. At times, they are afraid of Lydia and his occasionally cruel behavior and at others they are desperate to please him. They sigh, they cower, they tremble, they smile timidly. It’s all unnerving — and quite often funny.

Although Lydia dishes out a fair share of bon mots throughout the show, the most humorous bits are at the expense of Shepherd’s character, a dopey and clumsy chap who is forever trying to please his director and always failing. And for that, he is punished. Lydia “casts” him as the character Justine — a role that has absolutely no bearing on the actual tale of the girl with the red shoes (Patrycja Kujawska) — in a series of diversionary intermissions, something akin to a comedic commercial break between the overall story. (Shepherd also has another scene-stealing role as the Butcher, who cuts off the Girl’s feet in The Red Shoes‘ signature scene.) Justine’s sole purpose is to delight the audience with various degrading feats and to satisfy the desires of Lydia’s seemingly black heart.

Of course, Lydia’s heart isn’t completely black — we’re not going to spoil the ending — and neither is Kneehigh’s Red Shoes. Ultimately, it’s a work of liberation and freedom, as Shepherd himself has said. And in that respect, Rice and company have subverted a preachy Andersen fable about a poor girl who falls in love with a pair of shoes and finds joy in dancing only to be, first, shunned for wearing them and then later cursed to dance all the way to the grave — and perhaps to hell itself. In the original tale, Andersen has the Girl atone for her sins and then ultimately allows her to enter heaven, but Rice allows her to find redemption on her own. She rejects the Church — and a rather nasty guardian angel — and embraces her obsession. Ultimately, she cherishes her experiences (both the good and the bad) and stands triumphant before the audience.

The same could be said of Kneehigh Theatre. The Red Shoes is truly a standout performance that, aside from the fact that Lydia’s words were often drowned out by the music, is a far superior piece to the Cornwall troupe’s last Spoleto offering, Don John. Don’t miss it.

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