Kitka stars in primal “Iron Shoes” at Ashby Stage

On a darkened stage spattered with stars, 15 courageous singers, dancers and actors taught us about the power of narrative. Kitka, America’s premiere Balkan women’s chorus, wove together three fairy tales with discordant drones, powerhouse harmonies and primal wails of sorrow to bespell a sold-out audience.

Composed by 30-year Kitka veteran Janet Kutulas, this song cycle had depths made more accessible by the edgy story-telling and remarkably fluid movement. Kutulas brought together playwright Michelle Carter and director Erika Chong Shuch, and the work evolved over four years into an experience that was immersive and yet so immediate in our own lives that it shook us by the scruff.

Angel Adedokun, Second Girl; Sharon Shao, First Girl; Caitlin Tabancay Austin, Third Girl; photo by Ben Krantz Studios

The three intersecting story lines tell how three protagonists, through no fault of their own, are expelled from their communities and sentenced to wander the earth wearing heavy iron shoes. The exotic images and exceptional cruelty of fairy tales was revisited and eventually questioned in this retelling, and the three women first suffer the weight of censure and the intolerable constraints of their societies, and then come into their own power. At the end, the shoes become their vehicle for a veritable Stomp, turning the melancholy discords of Eastern Europe into fierce rhythms.

And that stomp was one of many highlights of this unusual fusion of ancient harmonies and modern theater. Another high point was the wailing of Caitlin Tabancay Austin, which was timeless and atonal. Towards the end, her wails gradually sank into the harmonies of the group, which rose to support her to create a sound as perfect and compelling as prayer.

Kitka member Kelly Atkins mentioned that afterwards. “It was hard for me to hear her wailing and still be able to sing. My throat would close up.” Atkins’ own singing was high and expressive and yearning, easily carrying into the back rows.

Kristine Barrett, Shira Cion, Briget Boyle and Juliana Graffagna supplied supple harmonies, and Michele Simon anchored them with a rich alto.

Those forceful voices were a backbone, but the theatricality was enlarged with a choreography that felt as natural as breath. Shuch’s choreography flowed like dreams, echoing and supporting and interpreting the action. Perhaps inspired by the mix of those seven Kitka singers with three professional dancers, there was a focus on the movement of the group, a pulsing interconnection like the arms of an anemone. There were moments where the lead was lifted and carried by a sea of bodies, and other moments where the ensemble filled the stage with folding chairs and stood and sat and twisted in abrupt unisons, all as they sang.

Four actors propelled the narratives. Along with Austin as the girl whose arms are chopped off by her husband, there is the girl who dreams of marrying a falcon, played by Sharon Shao, and the girl whose father marries her to a pig, performed by Angel Adedokun.  These were solid actors who took us with them as they inhabited their sorrows and evolution.

Cast of Iron Shoes at Ashby Stage; photo by Ben Krantz Studios

To give it structure, a narrator and assistant, played by Beth Wilmurt and Erolina Kamburova respectively, “told” the story, until their fairy tale characters began to question them and finally dragged them into the story with them. This was a complex device to help propel us into the world onstage, but it was a little clunky.

Four dancers helped define the movement: Melanie Elms, Rowena Richie as a tattered falcon and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as a redoubtable pig, powerful and sexual, but a pig nonetheless. The one man in the cast, Travis Rowland, was used effectively: his hefty arms propelled the many lifts, while his facility with quick-change and lip-synching turned him into an entire cast of extras.

Below the mythic was the prosaic and the political. These stories were about women: how they support each other, but also about how they undermine each other, and even imprison each other with the bindings of society. There were fairy god-mothers, but also crones and evil sisters, while the fathers and brothers and lovers were only implied.

While this was a work of beauty and sweetness (the ensemble’s performance of “Just one step” was a Broadway moment with sweet fragility), there was iron in these stories as well.

Afterwards there was a talk-back, with the audience invited to comment and ask questions of the performers and of composer Kutulas.

“This reminded me of Cirque du Soleil,” said one theater-goer, “It had that same sense of mystery.”

“How on earth did you get your pitches?” asked another. “There weren’t any instruments!”

“It was a spiritual experience,” I was firmly told.

This show is sold out right up to its closing performance on May 6. But there will be a list at the box office where one can add a name in case of cancellations, at 510-841-6500 ext. 303. Worth seeing!

—Adam Broner

Photo at top, from left, Angel Adedokun, Second Girl; Sharon Shao, First Girl; Caitlin Tabancay Austin, Third Girl. Photo below of cast, both photos by Ben Krantz Studio.