Sicilian Nights

From 03/05/2004 to 04/04/2004


A fascinating and layered work populated with hags, fairies, ogresses, and princesses wrestling with curses. It is a delightful and sometimes naughty epic, which looks at issues of gender and power as it examines how we use stories to control our own lives.


The reviews are in.

Theater review: ‘Nights’ offers escape, metaphor
By John Townsend, Special to the Star Tribune,,
March 11, 2004

Five hours’ worth of theater may sound taxing, but not when the offering is as marvelously entertaining as Frank Theatre’s production of “Sicilian Nights.”Presented in two parts over consecutive evenings, or all at once on Sundays, this new stage adaptation by Jack Zipes bedazzles with an epic sweep that rivals some of the hot epic movies in release.

Although these tales are complete with fairies, hags, ogresses and handsome princes, they are not suitable for children. They don’t emphasize unnecessarily the sexual or the brutal, but Zipes’ view clearly is untarnished by sentimentality and faithful to the earthy, mystical roots of the cultures from which these tales spring.

As realized by the Frank ensemble, “Sicilian Nights” becomes a medieval odyssey into fantasy kingdoms and haunted forests that can be comfortably viewed as either pure escapism or more seriously as a metaphor for the subconscious. A prince asks at one point, “What shall I do with this freedom? I’m not sure I like being free.”

“Collection One” of the two-part epic involves a princess (Annie Enneking) who is cursed by a hag (Maria Asp). To remove the curse, the princess must rescue the sleeping Prince Tadeo (Patrick Bailey) by weeping into a jug till it’s full of her tears…”Collection Two” continues the saga while adding unpredictable twists ranging from savagely humorous tales of enforced chastity by a Crusader General (Tom Sherohman) to an evil priest (Gary Keast) whose lustful malice ruptures a royal family.

Director Wendy Knox’s cast engages with crisp, comedic, two-dimensional performances. The presentational approach, reminiscent of vaudeville, makes for a fast-moving five hours. Call it storybook theater for adults. Kathy Kohl’s picturesque costumes reflect the medieval context exquisitely. She adds a mischievous touch by dressing actress Emily Zimmer in a long black skirt and starched blouse that recalls images of female suffragists of a century ago. Zimmer herself is ironically prim as a bondage mistress, while the acrobatic Alex Morf embodies aristocratic privilege turned sadistic. Asp is stunning in her ferocious vocal precision. However, few performers anywhere capture the spirit of folklore more wonderfully than Josette Andree Antomarchi in her crone narration sequences. In one delectable passage, she tells of a king who rose to power because he knew “how to bargain, to cut throats, to entice, seduce, allure, gamble, and to smile all at the same time.”

Also capturing the folkloric spirit are set designers Michael Sommers and John Bueche. They’ve enhanced a Mediterranean courtyard setting with a dreamy upstage scrim, behind which actions are played in silhouette by stick figures and actors. Equally effective is Marya Hart’s primal music.

Hermaphrodite Bites Unicorn By Dylan Hicks,

Five hours of sicilian fables and two tons of recycled tires: Are you interested yet?

“Art is divided not between the good and the bad,” said W.H. Auden in a lecture on Romeo and Juliet, “but between the interesting and the boring, and what is interesting is…the exception to the universal norm. Dog bites man is not interesting, man bites dog is.” Maybe so, but how come I can’t I find a publisher for my 900-page novel Hermaphrodite Bites Unicorn? And what do we say about art that can’t easily be categorized with the interesting exceptions or the typical bores?

For example, Frank Theatre’s production of Jack Zipes’s Sicilian Nights at the old Sears building on Lake Street is indeed exceptional, and generally interesting, regularly funny, often wonderful. It’s also a bit dull. The show, directed with characteristic adventurousness by Wendy Knox, is presented in two parts, which you can take in piecemeal over Friday and Saturday nights. Or, if you’re medically immune to restlessness, you can attend the five-hour Sunday matinee, as I did, an experience that by the home stretch made me feel something like a full-bladdered toddler in the longest Rainbow Foods line ever.

The show is mainly drawn from Sicilian folktales originally collected in the 19th century by Swiss-German researcher Laura Gonzenbach. These important but little-known stories were first translated into English in a recent volume by Zipes, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota and one of the world’s leading authorities on folklore and children’s literature. These fairy tales, however, are not for children. The first involves a dispirited princess (Annie Enneking) whose long streak of mirthlessness is broken when she overhears a hag (Maria Asp) rebuking a punk (Alex Morf). The crone’s fusillade of invective is profane enough to make George Carlin’s seven-dirty-words routine sound like a Jim Nabors sing-along.

Offended by the princess’s apparent mockery, the hag curses her, which sends the lass on a long quest for the prince who can free her from the hex. Not long into her journey, she witnesses a bound prince (Morf) being raped by three whip-wielding thugs. Later stories involve an ass that appears to shit money, and a menage a trois involving two sisters and a very foul-mouthed lothario. The gruesome violence isn’t far from the Brothers Grimm, but the graphic sex and potty humor is. Also atypical in these tales is a strong feminist streak, or at least a taste for equal-opportunity sadism. There are no helpless female victims here, and as many crafty and bloodthirsty women as there are men. Most notably, the stories rarely are moralistic, nor do they end happily.

Most of the time, in fact, they don’t end so much as stop. Often in the middle of one story, a character will begin a new tale, and then another, until the production becomes a sort of narrative house of mirrors. Enneking and Morf tackle a host of discrete yet connected characters. (Among the remaining nine players, Frank regular Tom Sherohman is an excellent jack-of-all-trades who’s especially hilarious as an easily gulled baron.) The effect is something like one story told a hundred different ways, or a hundred stories rolled into one. As should be expected on opening weekend of a show with this many words, there were a number of bungled lines, but on the whole this is a smooth and often quite funny production.

Still, for a piece this epic in proportion, there’s not much tension or much of an emotional arc to sustain things into the fourth quarter. Despite its many charms and admirable audacity, I’m not convinced that Sicilian Nights needs to be this long. Couldn’t there be one or three fewer songs, three or eight fewer tales, one or three fewer hours?

REVIEW: Intrepid Frank Theatre pushes boundarieswith Sicilian Nights
By Liz Weir,,March 2004

Once upon a time, there was a fearless artistic director. Her name was Wendy Knox. She was more fearless by far than all the other directors in the land. She named her theater Frank Theatre and put on difficult works like the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and, what’s more, she put it on in a former ammunition factory, slated for demolition. She played The Taming of the Shrew as a domestic abuse drama. She created a hit with the 1937 socialist folk opera The Cradle Will Rock, and performed it in an abandoned Sears warehouse in a poor neighborhood.

So fearless was Wendy that one day she decided to put on a five-hour cycle of fairy tales, called, Sicilian Nights. It is a tale that is ribald, funny and hobnail tough. The story delves into power, gender and class conflict. She decided to put the cycle on in that same vast space in the Sears building.

“Five hours?” the townspeople asked in amazement. Well, five hours plus a little bit, actually! Wendy knows that she will either be rewarded with over-spilling treasure chests of praise or, like the kings in fairy tales, the critics will slice off her head.

“It’s a monster adventure,” said Knox, her eyes bright, as she sat among the turrets and arches of Michael Sommers’ almost complete set. “It’s really fun and really hard to do. We’ll present it in two collections [on alternate nights] and do the whole thing on Sundays, with a boxed lunch available from Buon Giorno. You see,” she laughed, “Frank’s becoming a dinner theater!”

Jack Zipes, Professor of German at the University of Minnesota, a linguist, playwright, translator and author, adapted and wrote Sicilian Nights and flew from his sabbatical in Rome to be here for the opening.

He drew heavily on the Sicilian peasant stories from his recently published book “Beautiful Angiola: The Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales, Collected by Laura Gonzenbach,” his translation into English of Gonzenbach’s collection of 92 folk tales that she gathered from peasant women in the summer of 1868. He selected tales from the Sicilian stories, added some of his own and drew upon Arabic, German and French folk tales.

“My original manuscript took eight hours,” says Zipes, “but Wendy got out her scissors, took out scenes and gave me my marching orders. It’s a difficult process, but I’ve learned a lot from her and got a lot of feedback from the actors. The cuts are not for artistic reasons but for production reasons.”

Although it has been hard to watch his words being changed, Zipes says it has been a great collaboration, and his intention in Sicilian Nights remains intact. “A major theme of the play is how storytelling impinges on one’s life,” he said. “My philosophy is, if you don’t know how to narrate your own life, then you will be at the mercy of forces and conditions that act upon you. These stories are told by peasant women. They’re down-trodden, but they have spirit and vitality. Through their stories, they take charge.”

Zipes frames the independent but complementary sections of Sicilian Nights with Gonzenbach and her sister, as they collect the stories from Sicilian peasants. “The women are stunning storytellers,” he said, “and as they speak, the frame characters slip into the action of the story. Laura becomes the Haunted Princess, and a young aristocrat becomes the Prince. The sleeping prince is very unusual,” he adds, mysteriously.

“The stories fit into each other like Russian nesting dolls,” said Knox. “The script has come light years from where it was in its first draft last summer.” Around her are the props of fairy tales, a spinning wheel, a well, a rack of Kathy Kohl’s creative costumes and a sarcophagus with a moving part – I say no more.

Each section can be seen separately, or sequentially. Knox hopes to play the first collection, “The Haunted Princess,” at one-and-a-half-hours-long, without an intermission. The second collection of “Clever Valentina” and “The Tale of Tales” will be longer and have at least one intermission. On Sundays, the entire performance will be played, like a happening.

“Many of the original tales are naughty and brutal,” Knox said. “They’re told to teach us about the world around us.” She gave as an example “Little Red Riding Hood,” which is about rape, and warns, don’t walk in lonely places on your own. “Those sharp edges in storytelling are important.” she said. “The tales in Sicilian Nights teach that a curse has only as much power as you give it.”

Both Knox and Zipes made it clear that Sicilian Nights has none of Disney’s sugar-coating. The stories do not deal in the Grimm Brothers “and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after” endings but are packed with life’s thorns and warts. “These tales are more subversive,” said Zipes. “They have a certain immorality. Life is not orderly and happy.”

“Sicilian Nights is not for children,” Knox emphasized. “It’s for adults, but it’s all right for high school kids.”

When you come, Fearless Wendy plans for you to follow long strings of fairy lights through the vast darkness of the Sears space and into the lusty enchantment of Sicilian Nights.

Dominic Papatola, MPR: State of the Arts, March 12, 2004

Frank doesn’t have two nickels to rub together to begin with, and yet with SICILIAN NIGHTS, they are betting the rent money on the dark horse in the sixth race at Canterbury. It?s those kinds of what-the-hell-let?s-go-for-it ideas that keep the arts strong. They recreate that sense of improbable invincibility that can lead to great things. You’re not obliged to love the product of such plans, which is sometimes out of grasp, but you gotta adore the reach.