Many cultures tell the story of the handless maiden, always with slight variation on the theme: A man makes some kind of self-serving bargain with a devil (not the Biblical devil — more like a venal, borderline-sadistic fairy). Somehow the deal results in his daughter’s hands getting chopped off and growing back later. There’s an Italian version in which the girl cuts off her hands to fend off an incestuous brother, and a Swahili version in which a brother cuts off his sister’s hand while chopping down a pumpkin vine. The Handless Maiden also reappears in the writings of Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, and Nan Fry. The tale’s staying power shouldn’t surprise anyone: It’s dramatic; it’s grisly; it centers on a female castration metaphor. When local theater director Amy Sass discovered it in an anthology called Women Who Run with the Wolves, she fell in love. Sass spent the next few years conceptualizing a stage adaptation.
The resulting Ragged Wing Ensemble production, Handless, was no easy feat. It required Sass to devise two parallel universes, one populated by fairies, the other by humans. It also required incredible shifts in time and space. It’s a veritable odyssey: People move, time passes, space expands. In that sense, Sass’ script is really a screenplay. The handless maiden, Grace (Annamarie MacLeod) runs away from home, falls in love with a nobleman (Lord Colin, played by Keith Cory Davis), then runs away again when she’s accused of adultery. In the process, she trudges through forests, fords streams, and ultimately winds up in a weird, liminal space called Dragon’s Wake Inn.
Those types of environments are near impossible to create in Richmond’s Central Stage, the small, industrial venue where Handless is being staged. Harder yet is the magical realism part of the play. Fairies keep popping out of corners, fighting over Grace’s body and trying to control her destiny. Not only does Sass have to show an epic journey, she also has to fill the play with supernatural elements without relying on sight gags or pyrotechnics.
Luckily, she’s an extremely clever director. Sass conceived Handless as more of an ensemble piece than a character-driven storyline, but she also had ensemble members become part of the set design. In order to turn Lord Colin’s orchard into a library, she has several people come out in identical black cowls, holding books in front of their faces. Later in the play, they all line up and paddle their arms to imitate water flowing in a stream. Sass and set designer Plamena Milusheva also use minimal set pieces to create several crowded worlds. There’s an apple tree at stage right and a pear tree at stage left, both suspended from the ceiling by a pulley system. Fertility metaphors accumulate throughout the play, sometimes to suggest growth, maturation, and bounty, and other times to invite violence and malevolence.
Handless starts off with a pre-show, in which the fairy characters Shine (Aleph Ayin), Twig (DiLecia Childress), and Ash (Lauren Spencer) roam through the house squabbling with each other. When the play starts in earnest, Shine has an opening monologue about the drudgery of being “eternal” and how he’s lost his sense of surprise. At this point, Sass tries both to psychologize her characters and establish them as symbols. Shine is the devilish one insomuch as he wants to sow chaos in the world. Ash is the blind, virtuous one, proprietor of Dragon’s Wake, and acts as a kind of moral compass. Twig is Ash’s little sister, and a Puck of sorts. Most of the fairy scenes happen in a top corner of the stage, where the lighting looks foggy and shadowy. When Shine enters the human world to bargain with Benjamin Candle (Grace’s father, also played by Davis), all of his movements are punctuated by sound effects. It’s akin to watching panels flip by in a comic book.
Sass’ scenes are fast and dense — big things are revealed in little ways — and the language is so freighted with symbols that it gets a little complicated. But the cast is just wonderful. Several actors go double duty: Davis plays Lord Colin and Benjamin Candle; Aleph Ayin plays Shine and Colin’s steward, John; Anna Shneiderman plays Grace’s sister, Clara, and a nursemaid named Leisel. Most likely such choices were logistical — Ragged Wing is a shoestring company with an apparent dearth of male leads — but the three cast members make it seem intentional.
Better yet are the kids. Eighth-grader Sophia Sinsheimer plays Grace’s kid sister, Millie. Her love interest, Piper, is played by ninth-grader Henry Kinder. Childress, who plays Twig, is a senior at Oakland’s Envision Academy. The three of them help enliven the material and keep it from being too much about women’s issues. In that sense, they’re essential: The play’s squirmiest moment happens when Millie gets her first period and Piper has to actually talk to her about it. It’s basically every fourteen-year-old boy’s nightmare: You’re in a play about hand-chopping, and suddenly it turns into The Vagina Monologues. He’s flummoxed, but his face is priceless. It makes the amputation part seem less traumatic — relatively speaking.