L to r: Travis Santell Rowland, Beth Wilmurt, Melanie Elms, Angel Adedokun and Briget Boyle, in Iron Shoes. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

Iron Shoes began life ten years ago as a choral song cycle by the internationally recognized Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble, composed by Janet Kutulas. It is based on three little-known Eastern European fairy tales about blameless women, who because of external circumstances, are unjustly compelled to atone for their alleged wrongdoings by making long journeys wearing heavy iron shoes.

Now Shotgun Players’ version of Iron Shoes, with the talented Michelle Carter as  playwright/librettist and the inventive Erika Chong Shuch as director/choreographer , is an elaborate reimagined folk operetta with 15 vibrant actors and vocalists, dramatic sets, including one of a forest with twinkling stars (Sean Riley, set designer), creative staging where a large movable wooden box serves multiple purposes, and intricately clever costumes from instant-on and-off peasant dresses to sequined drag queen gowns (costumes by Alina Bokovikova).

Yet, the underlying slenderly plotted, brief fairy tales, even with their appended 21st-century feminist stance, aren’t developed enough to support the two hour, two-act production. It’s as though instead of a complete dinner, one were served only the delicious complimentary appetizer, the amuse-bouche, which merely whets the appetite for a meal that never fully materializes. The choral origins of Iron Shoes may be the explanation.

The first act, which dramatizes the three tales, begins with a sweet young woman (Sharon Shao) who falls in love with a falcon (Rowena Richie). Her two mean sisters place knives on the good sister’s window. When the falcon comes calling, he slashes his wings and in anger tells his love that she will never see him again unless she travels three times nine countries and wears out a pair of iron shoes. And she actually sets out to do this!

Another young maiden (Angel Adedokun) in the second story is forced to marry an actual pig (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) whose costume includes a cute pink snout. When the young maiden tries to break the magic spell that had turned her husband’s princely self into a pig, she only makes things worse. She is also obliged to travel the earth in the weighty shoes.

For reasons not disclosed on stage, the third young woman (Caitlin Tabancay Austin) has had her arms hacked off. She wanders the earth in the iron shoes with a baby strapped to her chest, only accidently to drop her infant down a well.

The production is accompanied by the ever-present Kitka chorus whose sophisticated vocals range from beautifully melodic to high-pitched atonal keening, as they sing primarily in sympathy with the action, rather than carry it forward. They are an extremely talented group, with complex choral arrangements and harmonies, adding drama and gravitas to the stories.

Beth Wilmurt is excellent as a modern narrator, who in the first act, as the original stories are reenacted, has little patience for the put-upon heroines of the fairy tales. Her thoughts veer toward the universe as she scorns the problems of the common folk. But in Act Two, she empathizes with their tribulations when she is forced to walk the metaphorical mile in the heavy shoes herself. A stereotypical lesson in sisterhood, yet it does make the visceral point.

In the second and much more satisfying act, we see the modern resolution of these fairy tales, as the women wake to the unjustness of their quandaries and reclaim their lives. And although the outcome is obvious in its feminism, it is gratifying to see.

There are many terrific theatrical moments of cleverness and fun in Iron Shoes, from the hand-held sign motifs replicating the changing of the seasons, to Travis Santell Rowland in outrageous gowns portraying the raunchy mother of the moon, sun and wind. There are also exquisite flashes of beauty, as when Rowena Richie as the falcon bursts forth with new feathers, and the rebirth of the drowned infant from an array of curved arms. With more substance in the narrative and clarity of purpose, Iron Shoes’ message of modern sisterhood would be delineated more clearly, serving as a more suitable main course to the imaginative vocal, chorographical and theatrical garnishes that are the finest parts of the production.

Iron Shoes is playing at the Ashby Stage through May 6. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...