Reading "The Girl Detective," a celebrated short story by Nebula and World Fantasy award winner Kelly Link, one might see potential for either a wonderful or a terrible stage adaptation. Although full of surprising imagery in motion, with fantastic settings, colorful characters, dancing language and dancing people, the story ultimately succeeds because of the author's narrative voice.
That unique slant or sheen is important in any kind of prose but absolutely essential to a short story. Link's tale, like the best fairy stories ancient or modern, casts an unbroken word-spell. It's an experimental, unconventionally plotted story that hangs together on the strength of a narrative voice that says things like this: "Someone else is dreaming about the house they lived in as a child. The girl detective breaks off a bit of their house. It pools in her mouth like honey." Can that cool style translate to a setting where the narration and dialogue are split among a big cast of actors, and an audience must be engaged?
The answer, happily, is yes. Thanks to crisp direction, winning performances by a talented cast, and above all, brilliant choreography, the Ateh Theater Group's production, at the beautiful Connelly Theater in Manhattan's East Village, is a pleasure.
Adhering closely to the text of the story, the show starts off in chilly fashion. In fact, one fears one is in for an evening of stiff, postmodern conceptualizing, as the cast pops in and out delivering lines like they're hot potatoes. It might have been opening night jitters, or simply the viewer needing to adjust to the disjointed rhythm of a non-traditional narrative – probably a bit of both. Then, a few minutes in, the tap-dancing bank robbers breeze on stage.
Led by Birthday (the buoyant Alexis Grausz, who has the makings of a Broadway star), the dancers set the humorous and playful tone that infuse the rest of the story even in its more somber moments. Show and audience find their rhythm and suddenly warm up. The game is afoot.
The plot, such as it is, has to do with the title character — played with regal innocence by the tall, spectral Kathryn Ekblad — searching for her missing mother while trailed by the nameless narrator (Ben Wood). He's a combination of stalker ex-boyfriend, wood nymph, and Ariel from The Tempest. The two are only marginally "leads," though, in a production driven by crisp pacing, divine dancing, and an ensemble of actors (who clearly love working together) making the most of their in-and-out parts. With clever lighting and a few props the stage becomes, alternately, the Girl Detective's neighborhood, her house, a Chinese restaurant, and the clubby Underworld, which is more Folies Bergère than Hades. But the show-stopper is a scene in which our heroine, who "eats dreams" (instead of food), darts among a mass of many people's dreams come to life. It's real theater magic.
What all of it means is open to interpretation, but by sticking closely to the original text the director, Bridgette Dunlap, has preserved the story's tone. Link's tale also has many layers, which, for the most part, also survive the transition. Is an explicit telling of the Persephone and Demeter myth – implicit in the original story – necessary? Does it have to be pointed out on stage that in fairy and fantasy tales, child heroes almost always lack at least one parent? Unclear. But in an adult show that also has kid appeal, some amount of explanation may be a plus. Certainly, the wonderful dancing and funny stage business help make the show a pleasure for all ages, in spite of the "mature themes" warning on the poster. This reviewer's inner child, for one, was as amused as his critical brain was tickled.