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Ghostwritten is a modern fairy tale that raises “fascinating questions,” said Tony Alder in the Chicago Reader. A recasting of the Rumpelstiltskin story, playwright Naomi Iizuka’s latest tells the tale of Susan, a young American who travels to Vietnam, where she encounters a sorceress who cooks her a dish so delicious that she begs for the recipe. The sorceress refuses her request, so Susan, confident that she’ll never have children, barters her firstborn for the dish’s secrets. Two decades later, Susan is a professional chef with an adopted (and secretly pregnant) Vietnamese daughter, when the sorceress comes to collect. It’s then, in this smart first act, that the play transcends its fairy-tale frame and tackles heady issues such as “the arrogance of empire, the perception of exoticism, and the strangeness of international adoptions.”
After intermission, though, Ghostwritten “collapses,” said Steven Oxman in Variety. The play “jumps the shark” the moment it makes Susan’s daughter, Bea, a princess— complete with bad princess costume and cheap tiara. Bea’s boyfriend, Chad, inexplicably starts dressing and behaving like a fairy-tale woodsman. Suddenly, everyone in the play begins to act as if they’re in a bad piece of community theater about themselves. At the same time, the play “stops weaving a story and starts becoming a caricature of itself.” It’s not clear why all this is happening, but the effect is that the audience quits caring about the characters. If Iizuka is trying to create a winking, snarky fairy tale à la Shrek and Enchanted, it doesn’t work.
This kind of “metadramatic trickery” is a temptation for playwrights crafting contemporary fairy tales, said Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune. But pulling it off “requires a much lighter touch than delivered here.” Director Lisa Portes provides an “energetic production full of clever visuals,” and the actors perform capably, particularly the talented newcomer Tiffany Villarin as Bea. But everything is rendered in an off-putting, overly theatrical style. Iizuka doesn’t seem to understand that even in a fairy tale, “people have to relate emotionally, and her unmoored approach asks her audience to swallow too much heightened stuff and not enough reality.” The nexus of this play’s strength is the insight that “real life can feel like a fairy tale.” It’s a shame Iizuka doesn’t seem to realize it.