Stylish Cinderella 

Zanzibar recasts the old fairy tale with 22 handcrafted puppets.

In his long-running career as a lighting and costume designer, Theodore Dawson has done everything from Saks Fifth Avenue window displays to gowns for female impersonators. But all his previous exploits pale in comparison to Zanzibar Fairytale Puppet Theater, the new repertory company that Dawson created with a team of fellow craftsmen and five puppeteers. For its debut performance — which, Dawson said, was two years in the making — Zanzibar will present an updated version of the popular folktale Cinderella, adapted for 22 puppets with couture garments and tons of personality. Think of it as the Sex in the City of puppet shows: The characters have well-chiseled, expressive faces that combine toy and human elements — say, the paintbrush features of a Madame Alexander doll with the sharp jawline of Sarah Jessica Parker. Their costumes are extravagant silk things with hand-beaded trims, perfect for either a fairy-tale ball or a party on Madison Avenue. And in this version, Cinderella gets to be her own lady of rage. "The story is really written in such a way that Cinderella, she never assumes the role of a victim," Dawson explained. "But it's all done in a fairy-tale way."

Although the production runs to about 33 minutes, it was a mammoth undertaking. The set includes a full lighting rig and sixty feet of scenery that runs on a custom-tracking system, so the set pieces glide on and off stage. Each puppet has a cast rubber head designed by Michael Baroto and hand-painted by watercolorist Todd Lovett, who gave them emotional depth and interiority. (The stepsisters look jowly and overly made-up, while Cinderella resembles a pert Scarlett Johansson.) Most impressive of all are Dawson's costumes. Each took about eighty hours to make, and the process sounds excruciating. "Sometimes I would have to make a bodice two or three times out of muslin to make it work," Dawson recalled. "It was like my own mini-version of Project Runway. I'd keep waiting for Tim Gunn to come in and say 'You have thirty more minutes to get it done!'"

Apparently, all his efforts panned out. The resulting play has ten scene changes in a half-hour span, with a score poached from Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet and Gounod's Faust, and mastered by sound designer Bryan Wright. It's a thoroughly modern production, in terms of all the high-tech rigging, the aesthetic sophistication, and the message of female empowerment that Dawson snuck in when he rewrote the script. "I wanted my whole life to do a puppet show, but I really wanted to tell a story about having faith and believing in yourself," the designer explained. Granted, he later added, "I was also drawn to the fact that I could design lots of beautiful gowns." Cinderella plays Saturdays and Sundays through June 15 at St. Paul Lutheran Church (1658 Excelsior Ave., Oakland). $7-$10 ZanzibarPuppets.com

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