‘Fabulous bewilderment’ in ‘Fables’ at Mt. Airy theater.

by Hugh Hunter

Ensemble actor Lee Cortopassi wrote and directed “Aesop’s Fables,” a fast-paced adaptation that runs for less than an hour. After its one-week run at Quintessence, the show will play in area schools.

Aesop is a mysterious figure. A slave in 600 B.C.E. Greece, he is both real and mythic. Hundreds of fables are accredited to him, and many have become household proverbs: “The Tortoise and the Hare” (slow and steady wins the race), “The Fox and the Grapes” (crying sour grapes), etc. But who Aesop was and how many stories he truly wrote remain a mystery.

Given the sheer number of Aesop’s Fables, any adaptation is daunting. Rather than picking out a few stories as stand-alone pieces, Cortopassi chose to tell one continuous tale, weaving in fables as his building material. It has the effect of enhancing a sense of the magical, but it lessens Aesop’s moral probity

The backbone of the adaptation is “Androcles and the Lion.” Androcles is a slave who escapes from the emperor. He befriends a wounded lion by removing a thorn from his paw, and they form a friendship that is so endearing it wins over the heart of the cruel emperor. Other fables like “The Fox and the Lion,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Fox and the Crow” are mixed in.

Four actors — Emily Fernandez, Faith Fossett, Michael Gamache and Liam Mulshine — play multiple roles, and Cortopassi encourages them to indulge their inner ham. With oversized mannerisms, they cavort all over the stage using comical, choreographed movements, and act out many chase and fight scenes (Sean Bradley, fight director).

Director Cortopassi does not stop there. The entire show is awash in exaggeration. The stage features oblong posters with abstract designs that the characters hide behind. The central poster has small cardboard cutouts that serve as playful props. Characters rip them off the board while off-stage sounds amplify every action. When the emperor snatches a small teacup cutout and takes a drink, loud slurping sounds chime in (sound designer, Daniel Ison).

Fairy tale literature has always been a way of teaching children lessons in ethics and morality, and no one has succeeded more eloquently than Aesop. In this show the lessons are still there: Do not fall prey to flattery (“The Fox and the Crow”). Mercy is its own reward (“The Lion and the Mouse”). And most of all, true friendship is the sign of noble souls (“Androcles and the Lion”).

But in this production, morality takes a back seat to entertainment, with the joyful outlandishness of the actors and the spectacle of lights, costume and sound. While “the moral of the story” is still there in muted form, the show transforms “Aesop’s Fables” from tales of instruction into a wonderland of fabulous bewilderment.

Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy. “Aesop’s Fables” will run through Sept 17. Tickets available at 215-987-4450.