The creation of the spine-tingling play "The Red Shoes" began with references: the classic movie of the same title, David Lynch, Hans Christian Andersen, horror novelist Shirley Jackson. Eventually, that list filled an 8-foot-long piece of butcher paper with photos, text and Post-it notes.
That all those disparate elements made it into "The Red Shoes" seamlessly is a testament to the collaboration between creator/director Joel Sass and performer Kimberly Richardson, whose main character fashions her own "murder board" of photos and clues to help solve a mystery.
When they first staged the show in 2017, Sass brought his suitcase full of ideas to Richardson, with whom he'd worked on "Noises Off" at Jungle Theater. Her takeaway was, " 'I'm going to be busy. There are 10 books and five movies I have to [tackle] before we begin.' "
She also had garage sales to visit. Richardson sought shoes that her characters in "The Red Shoes" might wear. Trained as a dancer since childhood, Richardson found that a feet-first approach helped determine how the "Red Shoes" characters behave, especially since one pair — 6-inch stripper heels that costumer Morgan Lee Potter painted and restyled — transforms the way Richardson moves as a '40s-style femme fatale, the Songbird.
Richardson plays the Mouse for most of "Red Shoes," which is almost entirely set in a decrepit New York apartment where a timid woman is beset by forces both natural and supernatural. She also plays a newsboy named Buddy, Mouse's vile Landlady and the Gumshoe, who's investigating a series of disturbances. Since Mouse has made a murder diorama (inspired by the real ones created decades ago by socialite Frances Glessner Lee), Richardson also voices diorama characters. Unseen puppeteers — Noah Sommers Haas also joined the show early on — are involved when pieces of Sass' puzzle-box set come to life.
Although it shares a title with the Michael Powell movie in which an obsessed ballerina dances herself to death, "The Red Shoes" does not martyr its protagonist.
"I adamantly was not interested in a main character who was somehow punished, was not the hero of her own adventure," Sass said. "I responded to the idea of this character who is cooped up in that apartment, is fearful of leaving for a variety of reasons but, in the end, is able to."
There's more movement than dialogue in the show, which is noted in the script in italics. It's also highly technical, not only because of the unseen puppeteers but also laser-timed lighting and costume changes.
All of that is why the white-knuckle opening night of "The Red Shoes" in 2017 was the first time they'd done the show from start to finish. Beforehand, Open Eye Figure Theatre executive director Susan Haas warned that there might be stopping and starting.
"I think the audience got involved in the risk and adventure of putting the thing on its feet," said Sass, noting they didn't stop once. "When we did our first public performance after five months of work and never having been able to run through it, it kind of went off without a hitch."
Richardson, who knew partner Hans Hauge was there along with lots of friends, felt golden. Early on, Mouse works with the diorama, which Richardson worried she might knock off Open Eye's tiny stage and into the audience. Meanwhile, she also delivers a complex speech in the vernacular of a detective from 1940s film noir.
"It seemed like I had it. Feeling the audience respond to that staccato language and familiar tropes and then just thinking that I had made it through the trickiest bit of text in the show," Richardson recalled. "I caught the edge, to use a figure skating analogy, and I could just coast on through the rest of the figure eight."
Audiences who saw the earlier "Red Shoes" may note substantial changes, things Richardson and Sass didn't have time to work on in 2017 or noticed when they watched a video of that production. Richardson thought the "drunk, jerky, funny Landlady" needed to be more menacing, so she's working on that. Sass said new scenes and ideas create what amounts to "about 40% additional exploration," believing that "when you revisit a show it has to be not just as good as it was. It has to be better than people remember."
This delicious ambiguity is unchanged: It's not clear if the people Richardson plays in "The Red Shoes" are one person, fracturing into multiple personas, or separate individuals who haunt the same fetid apartment building.
"Joel and I were really interested in telling a story that resonates with the audience but also has a dream logic and enough mystery to where they can see it either way," Richardson said.
In a way, that's the reason for all of those italics in the script: "The Red Shoes" was created to come alive not on the page, but on stage.
"We're working like painters or sculptors would in canvas or clay, responding to associations that drive the plot and develop the psychology of the characters," said Sass, who used a similar approach for "The Troll of Beldenville," his follow-up at Open Eye.
The director notes that Richardson has become busier in the three years since they first did "Red Shoes," due to a combination of her rigor, versatility, "beautiful, period glamour" and fearlessness. (She was in Children's Theatre Company's "Cinderella" last year and she's been in many Ten Thousand Things shows, including "The Unsinkable Molly Brown.")
"There's nothing she won't try. She commits 200% and, like all great artists, she'll go for the highest hurdle and not care whether she knocks it down because if she doesn't clear it, she'll find another way," Sass said.
Richardson prizes Sass' humor and command of the big picture.
"Sometimes, you spend so much time making one idea lovely and embroidered, even though it's not the right idea. You realize, 'Oh. Oops. We have an interesting, embroidered mush,' " Richardson said. "He knows how to step back and consider the whole thing. He can zoom in and zoom out really well."
Like Mouse, that may not be Richardson's strength.
"I like performing, rehearsing and researching. I don't always like the degree to which it takes me over, takes my life over. Which is a little 'Red Shoes'-y to admit," Richardson said. "It's hard to put the work down because it feels like there's almost more to explore and deepen. It's hard to say, 'I'm done for the day. I did enough.' "
Which is why bringing back "Red Shoes" could be a great idea. Sass, Richardson and their collaborators thought they were done once, but three years later, they're getting a chance to explore and deepen the work. And, to paraphrase one of the classics that informed the show, the postman does always ring twice.