“Rua | Wülf,” a surreal version of the classic fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” is anything but traditional theater. Presented by new kids on the block Saïah, the production has it share of pros and cons. It’s an ambitious, though elementally flawed, project by Saïah, a theatrical company whose two founders formerly were part of the acclaimed Collective Project.
In “Rua | Wülf,” being performed at the Goat Farm Arts Center through April 29, the audience gathers in the Seed House, an octagonal building, at 8 p.m. promptly each evening. They see Rua’s mother (Caitlin Reeves) go about her daily grind, lighting a candle, sitting down to knit and watching for the arrival of her daughter Rua (AC Smallwood), who is intent on crossing the woods to see her grandmother. Almost from nowhere comes Henrietta (Claire Rigsby), a perky, overcaffeinated tour guide, who fills us in on the psychology between mother and daughter and the absence of men in their life.
After the young girl has persuaded her mother that she’ll be OK, she leaves and the audience follows her, literally, through the fields and deserted crumbling Victorian industrial buildings of the Goat Farm complex. It seems as if the journey weaves through all of its 12 acres.
Rua stops to pick flowers along the way, and soon the first sign of menace appears, as a wolf runs past in the background. As she continues along, she meets up with the wolf, a.k.a. Hemming (Tim Batten), who introduces himself and then flirts with her before she eventually runs off. They meet again in the forest and share a dance, Hemming making his attraction clear. Soon the audience is divided in two; some members go along with Rua and others with Hemming as they both ponder their encounter.
At intermission, audience members gather at a table for tea and cookies. Then they follow Rua as she eventually arrives at grandmother’s house. She’s a little startled to find that Hemming is already there and that he and Grandma (Mary Wolfson) know each other.
The production includes some neat sight gags, such as the wolf in a box, hunched up, watching Rua walk past. Her light-sensitive red cape pulses when touched. Installation art from a dozen or so visual, performance, architectural, sound and design artists fills the 19 locations used for the play.
It can be awkward, though, because along the way, other activity seems to be going on all over the complex. A loud train passes by. Cars drive up and around the action. People get out and look to see what’s going on. A turkey sits on a ledge and makes gobbling noises.
The production is not particularly scary, although the barely lighted buildings and moonlit fields give plenty of ambience. It takes awhile for Rua to get to her grandmother’s house. When she does, it’s a nifty locale, with Grandma up on a bed-like platform awaiting visitors. The penultimate scene is something of a head-scratcher, bringing Rua, the wolf/Hemming and the grandmother together in very tight quarters.
The journey here is most of the show, but the performers commit themselves. Poor Batten spends the last 15 minutes without a stitch on, curled up in a fetal position before he has one last encounter with Grandma.
Henrietta, the tour guide, fills the audience in on the action more than needed, and her thesis statement that “No man is a wolf until he is made into one” is hammered home. Rigbsy makes her a spirited character as she sets the stage for the final showdown, at one point writhing on the ground as if longing for Suzi Award recognition.
The problem is that it all sounds much better in theory. “Rua | Wülf” is a hard production to look at critically. Part of it feels like a revisionist take on a classic story, while another part feels like a graduate school project: pretentious and silly, with feminist overtones about prey and predator and choice and circumstance. To boot, it’s also a guided tour of the Goat Farm. While it’s never truly a dull ride, twenty-somethings with open minds might be more up for it than forty-somethings with bad knees and linear thinking.
If you do decide to check it out, wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of patience.