We were warned Friday that Open Eye Figure Theatre's production of "The Red Shoes" by Joel Sass was still pretty fresh. Producing director Susan Haas told the audience that this was the first actual run-through of Sass' flight of fancy inspired by H.C. Andersen's dark fairy tale.
"Come back in two weeks, it could be very different," Haas said in introducing the 75-minute show.
Her caution did not lower expectations so much as heighten curiosity about this creation, which heralds a new phase in Sass' career. Always a brilliant designer and a fearless director (which works for and against him), Sass started drawing attention with his Mary Worth Theatre Company 20 years ago.
He since has worked at Park Square, the Guthrie, Theater Latté Da and the Jungle, where he served as interim artistic director. "The Red Shoes" brings him back to his idiosyncratic roots.
Sass and actor Kimberly Richardson have mashed up Andersen's tale with Raymond Chandler film noir, the lonely atmosphere of a "Twilight Zone" episode and a frightening moment drawn from the 1948 film "The Red Shoes," starring Moira Shearer.
The result is not fully cooked but what a delicious chunk of raw something they have. While the plot doesn't cohere, the staging is more about sleight of hand, marvelous tricks, Richardson's outstanding performance and Sass' signature aesthetic of dreamy mystery.
Richardson, whose legs appear to begin right beneath her ribcage, portrays a mousy introvert caught in her dilapidated apartment (Sass' usual brilliant attention to detail).
She busies herself with a miniature drama about a femme fatale, which she plays out with little figures on a revolving diorama. Sean and Bill Healey's slinky sound (including music by Greg Brosofske) and supple lighting perfectly articulate a comprehensive universe.
Richardson slips into several other roles, including a brassy landlord, a glamorous icicle of a woman draped in velvet and a Teutonic gumshoe.
And of course, throughout the zigs and zags, she laces up her red shoes — ballet flats, spiked heels, platforms, sensible oxfords. Richardson has a ball, posing like Dietrich, clowning like Chaplin and dancing like Shearer herself.
As with many aggressively quirky works, "The Red Shoes" keeps dancing longer than it should. On two occasions Friday, I started to pull on my jacket, confident that a particularly stunning moment was a perfect conclusion.
Will Sass look at this delightful hash and ask himself if it means anything? Is there more dimension to the character he and Richardson have created or is it enough to simply let her dance into our imaginations? It almost doesn't matter; "The Red Shoes" ripples with theatricality. Not bad for a first swing.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.