Open Eye Figure Theatre's newest production opens with a radio broadcast. "Doesn't every little town have a monster?" the jovial DJ asks as he launches into the tale of the fantastical creature at the center of "The Beldenville Troll." It's a question that becomes ever more pertinent as this little fairy tale unfolds.
Director Joel Sass created the piece as a sequel to his 2017 "The Red Shoes," a film noir riff on the Hans Christian Andersen story. This time around he shoots for what he's calling "New England Gothic," with a work about trolls inhabiting the hills and tunnels around a small town in Maine (a place Stephen King made fertile ground for scary stories).
The show really starts in the lobby, where a display of purported Beldenville artifacts — ranging from a troll cub skull to a diorama of the town and examples of troll scat — introduce the audience to the history of this town's odd heritage. According to the legend documented here, the local monsters have a history of preying on their human neighbors, snatching babies and leaving troll "changelings" in their place.
Having thoroughly prepped his audience, Sass then presents them with the wonderfully detailed set that fills Open Eye's narrow stage: the underside of a bridge with an ominously bricked up tunnel entrance. A short time later a hunched and muttering Neal Skoy pedals onstage on a tiny bicycle. As he lurches to a halt and begins to scrounge through trash and grumble incoherently, it becomes apparent that he's the troll at the heart of this fairy tale.
Over the next 80 minutes, his story is told through shifting perspectives and media, including live action, voice-overs and shadow puppets. Chloé Bell portrays a young girl who befriends Skoy's character, while Max Mainwood and Kalen Keir take on the roles of townspeople who fear and ostracize him. In one piece of clever stagecraft, Keir offers up an eerily comic turn as a mannequin brought to life as a local lounge singer. In another, Mainwood and Keir conjure an entire football team.
Is the troll at the heart of this play a fearsome monster, the result of a changeling swap at birth, or merely the damaged victim of monstrous abuse? Skoy's cleverly eccentric portrait encompasses both characterizations, walking a fine line between broad physical comedy and pathos and ultimately transforming the troll's inarticulateness into a wordless eloquence. At the same time, the sheer inventiveness of Sass' staging, with bar rails appearing out of thin air and mannequin body parts emerging from walls and dark holes, underlines the dreamlike proceedings.
There are certainly monsters at the heart of this intimate, charming and often chilling fable, but they may not be the ones we expect.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.