Billing The King Stag as cutting-edge fusion theater made a lot more sense 15 years ago, when the American Repertory Theatre's version of Carlo Gozzi's 18th-century fable debuted in Cambridge. Director Abbie Katz stage-managed the original and has "restaged" (their term) this disappointing road show. The show fit badly in the Edison, but perhaps Katz's familiarity bred a casualness with the magical elements that made the original Stag so beguiling. That was due in equal parts to designer Julie Taymor and original director Andrei Serban. Nowadays, Taymor has boffo marquee value, but don't think this is Lion King deluxe -- it's more like Lion King version 1.0.
Gozzi's story percolates with rollicking archetypes. King Deramo, ruler of "Oriental" Serendippo, needs a wife and has already auditioned and rejected nearly 3,000 candidates. This king possesses two pieces of magic. The first is an immense Buddha-like "head without a heart" that chortles helpfully at the insincere importuners, including avaricious Smeraldina and dim-witted Clarice.
Will anyone love the good king solely for himself and not his crown? Well, kindly Angela is genuinely smitten with Deramo, and she passes the test with surprising ease and speed. The royal wedding is announced. The complication is that Tartaglia, the king's evil prime minister, lusts after Angela and has sworn to take her for his own.
The king's second piece of magic proves his undoing when he blithely reveals it to his treacherous subaltern. It is a spell that allows a spirit to inhabit and reanimate a dead body. On a royal hunt, Tartaglia dares the king to "become" the magnificent king stag he has just shot and killed (the stag is an elegantly filmy puppet with a stylized profile, handled by a lone puppeteer). Tartaglia spells himself into the king's vacant corpus, and mayhem ensues.
I saw the original production of The King Stag and remember an intensely lit stage alive with life-size puppets: fluttering and soaring birds, agile stags and a frankly frightening bear that leaped over the audience's heads; a shadow-puppet hunt scene where reverse-image beasties gamboled, lurked and pounced; and fantastically costumed beings that weren't quite like actors. Most moving was the old-man puppet, a shoulder-high mannequin manipulated by a trio of puppeteers. There Deramo's spirit was captive, and his enfeebled and yearning gestures were achingly convincing. Audiences marveled at Angela's dawning recognition -- first disbelief that her handsome lover could be metamorphosed and then her tender renewed faith.
The biggest problem with this King Stag is that, as a road show, it must fit into hostile spaces, and the Edison's vault of a stage overwhelmed it. Puppets had to commute in from the wings, and almost everyone looked down on the bear. Props swam and too often eluded stark spotlights, not to mention sensitive handling. But there was a general shabbiness and carelessness about this show that is not excused by the necessary compromises of touring theater. Puppets fell from their hangers or refused to come loose; letters peeled from banners; costumes were frayed; tumbles and pratfalls were approximate at best. And the differing styles of some actors put scenes wholly out of sync. Jay Boyer's King Deramo had the stentorian vocal affect of John O'Hurley (who played Mr. Peterman on Seinfeld) and was typical of the company, though Sarah Howe as Angela managed a genuine pathos as the demure but strong-willed object of the king's desire. (To be fair, extreme overacting is something of an ART trademark.) Despite some "oh wow" elements that survive -- sleight-of-hand with a severed head -- cheap buffoonery bankrupted the delicate fairytale.