You might remember our first Harpy Cinematical Society, on the animated feature, Coraline. At the time, I mentioned that a musical stage production was in the works, and that I would view and report on it when the time comes.
And the time has come. I saw the show (now in previews at MCC Theater) this past weekend, and I want to think a little more about this story, our fascination with motherhood, and how we choose to re/present it.
I don’t really intend to review the production, which has both its charms and flaws, but it’s somewhat unavoidable. As adapted by David Greenspan, the show hews much more closely to the Gaiman novel than the screenplay, and not only because it’s set in England. Gone are Whybie and his grandma, along with a lot of the colorful, eye-popping spectacle. Instead, the tone is darker and more spectral, and the set is cluttered with the bones and guts of old pianos of all sizes.
The show can hardly be called a traditional musical, but its filled with the sometimes tinkly, sometimes dirge-like piano music of Stephin Merrit (of The Magnetic Fields), whose off-kilter melodies and quirky lyrics fit well with the creepy mood of the story. You can here a few brief clips of the songs, performed by Merrit, here.
Because of the single set, expository information is rendered a bit clunkily (“now I’m in the hall!”), but the liveness of the event delivers other charms, like puppets and mis-sized props. The handful of actors slip in and out of a variety of eccentric characters, and seem to have a great deal of pleasure in doing so. For some reason that isn’t entirely clear to me (but I’m going to hazard a guess that it has something to do with Patriarchy), five of the seven actors are men, even though more characters are female.
The two particularly non-traditional casting choices were, unsurprisingly, for Coraline and the Other Mother. Coraline was played by Jayne Houdyshell, a wildly talented woman in her 50s. This was initially jarring, but Houdyshell fully and winningly inhabited the role. David Greenspan (the author, mind) was cast as the Other Mother. Where Houdyshell filled her role with subtle skill , Greenspan, who has a history of playing cross-cast (or cross-dressed) characters, camped it up royally. The role is already showy, and was played up erratically, calling attention to itself–or to Greenspan, at any rate.
I was and am bothered by this latter casting choice. Was it author/actor vanity? A way of demonstrating the Other Mother’s “unnaturalness”? (Coraline’s Mother is played by a woman.) While the Others all had button eyes and playful costumes, the Other Mother did not go through the transformation to a spider-like creature, and only wore a bushy wig to indicate hir gender. She was never a terribly attractive figure, unlike in the film.
I’ve always struggled with the reputed gender liberation that drag performance brings, and this was no different. “Women” (like the Other Mother) who don’t gender conform are revealed as ”monstrous,” or fakes, while men who don’t (like Greenspan and at least one other actor) are lauded for their talent. Is that just because we read so much of femininity as a performance, while masculinity is (erroneously) understood as natural or basic?
Thematically, Coraline deals with duality and doubling–distorted mirror images–so while I can intellectually see reasons for the artistic choices of playing with gender, politically I can’t help but notice that in addition to my reservations about the story itself (Plucky Girl must defeat the Evil, emasculating Queen) the women in the cast never performed as male characters. I feel like this production could have helped rehabilitate the story for me, but it really didn’t. While I enjoyed both the film and the musical for their own reasons, I’m not sure that Coraline the story was worth all my time.