Review: Amina Henry and Project Y Create a Feminist "Sleeping Beauty" for Families

Sleeping Beauty

Written by Amina Henry

Directed by Michole Biancosino

Presented by Project Y Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres

502 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, NYC

June 22-30, 2019


Kyle Decker, Chelsea Melone, Veronica Cooper. Photo credit: Eric Bondoc Photography
Fairy tales have been a consistent site for feminist rewriting, remixed and reimagined by authors including Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, and A.A. Balaskovits, among many others. With Sleeping Beauty, playwright Amina Henry joins these ranks, but, in contrast to the darkness, violence, and eroticism of the aforementioned authors, Henry’s critique of gender roles and expectations is aimed squarely at younger audiences (but with a sense a humor that will keep the adults entertained as well). Henry has several plays on NYC stages this summer: The Great Novel, which we reviewed here, is currently running at The Flea; Rent Party will premiere on July 12 at The Tank; and Sleeping Beauty is part of Project Y Theatre’s fourth annual Women in Theatre Festival (the WIT Festival also features Three Musketeers 1941, which we reviewed here). Sleeping Beauty offers a fun, empowering variation on its source in a colorful, comedic production perfect for ages six and up.

Saran Bakari, Rachel Evans, Leon Schwendener. Photo credit: Eric Bondoc Photography
Sleeping Beauty begins with the familiar set-up: an infant daughter, a celebration, an insulted fairy, and a retributive curse. Here, the titular beauty, daughter of a King (Kyle Decker) and Queen (Veronica Cooper), is named Rosamond, in a probable allusion to Briar Rose, as Sleeping Beauty is known in some tales. Notably, it is the king, Charles, who disregards his wife’s advice and does not include fairy godmother Iris (Rachel Evans) among the fairy godmothers on the guest list, prompting the offended fae to curse Rosamond to die from pricking her finger on a spindle, a fate that fairy godmother Lily (Ava Yaghmaie) “softens” to falling into an enchanted sleep until she is awoken by a kiss (the specific mechanics of this are later humorously questioned). Jumping ahead to Rosamond’s (Chelsea Melone) seventeenth birthday, her parents believe that they have managed to avoid the curse, and they invite Prince Rocky (Leon Schwendener) and Princess Jewel (Saran Bakari) to a party. Rocky is, of course, also being positioned as a potential husband for Rosamond, and, duty-bound to flirt, he makes hilariously awkward attempts at small talk with her in a great scene helped by Melone’s playing this sheltered only child with an appealing weirdness. 

Just as Rosamond is actually more interested in a friend than a lover, Rocky’s sister, Jewel, is more interested in swordplay and riding horses than in, as Rocky puts it, just doing what princesses are supposed to do. Jewel is thus unimpressed with Rosamond, who is soon enough tricked by Iris into pricking her finger (at which point a little girl in the audience audibly said, “No, don’t!”) and spirited off to Iris’s castle, where, Iris vows, she will eat anyone who comes to rescue Rosamond—boys especially. Rocky and Jewel’s father, who wants Rocky to “grow” out of his love of baking, pushes him to attempt just such a rescue. Jewel insists on coming along, and the two set out on an adventure that includes encounters with a girl with a red hood in the forest (Ava Yaghmaie), a lost Hansel (Kyle Decker) and Gretel (Rachel Evans; Hansel, like Charles ignored his Queen’s advice, discounted Gretel’s argument that birds would eat their breadcrumb trail), and a pair of Iris’s hench-birds (Kyle Decker and Veronica Cooper) with powers of fire and snow.

Kyle Decker, Ava Yaghmaie, Veronica Cooper. Photo: Eric Bondoc Photography
When Rosamond says at one point that she hasn’t been allowed to do or be much besides be pretty, she can speak for women everywhere, and, ultimately, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t just reverse gender binaries but shows a path for moving beyond them, part of which involves its emphasis on empathy and friendship. On the way to this conclusion, the audience is treated to excellent costumes, designed by Jake Poser, that give the production a big, bold, storybook look (Lily might have claim to being one of the stylish fairy godmothers ever); duels between women of both the traditional and magical varieties; jokes, such as Hansel and Gretel’s accents and a runner about Charles and spindles, that work on different levels for kids and adults; and instrumental adaptations of female-fronted pop songs, all in a family-friendly running time of under an hour. This Beauty casts a beguilingly exuberant spell; don’t sleep on it. 

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards




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