In one of the most uproarious scenes in the new play The Ballad of Aurelie the Bold: A Grimm Brothers Story of Iron & Gold, Aurelie (Elliot Lorenc) tries to sit on a talking tree stump named Bobby (Janelle Rae). “Don’t you do it!” Bobby squeals. “In all my years of growing here, in all my years of just kind of sitting around as a stump, I have never been so disrespected!”
Believe it or not, this is hardly the strangest thing that happens in Aurelie the Bold, a filmed play by Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Productions. Lorenc, who wrote the script, transforms the ancient saga of “Iron John” into an environmentally conscious musical comedy about how Aurelie, a hapless musician, helps an eccentric collection of allies (including a golden-feathered goose) ignite a political revolution.
While a less savvy playwright might have struggled to blend the surrealism and sociopolitical commentary of Aurelie the Bold, Lorenc stirs them into a sublime theatrical cocktail. Creativity, integrity and working-class solidarity are the themes that define the play—and it embraces them with contagious smiles and conspicuous seriousness.
Aurelie the Bold is set in a village languishing under the reign of Coyne (Rae), the head of a dastardly company called Coyne Enterprises. Coyne’s greatest nemesis is Iron Jo (Jesse Groat), a towering creature who guards a forest pond that can transform any material into gold—and when Aurelie bonds with Jo, Coyne manipulates their friendship as part of a plan to create a “mega spa.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, Aurelie the Bold is a loose adaptation of “Iron John,” which was retold by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s and is also known as “Iron Hans.” The change from Iron John to Iron Jo is noteworthy (the play refers to the character using gender-neutral pronouns), as is Lorenc’s decision to toy with time. The play is set in an era when fairy godmothers and curses exist alongside corporate greed and phones, a liberty that cleverly closes the distance between our own time and once upon a time.
Aurelie is our guide to this absorbing world, but Lorenc graciously allows himself to be upstaged by a series of wondrous puppets designed by Trevor Harter. The play’s breakout star is the aforementioned goose, an epically extroverted bird (voiced and puppeteered by Harter) who introduces himself to the village by declaring, “Hello, lowly village peasants. My name is Skyler and I am a talking goose.”
Getting to hang out with beautiful goofballs like Skyler and Bobby the Stump—whose globular eyes are as expressive as Skyler’s gaping beak—is a treat. Yet Lorenc and director Mandana Khoshnevisan have created a play that is both a spirited diversion and a 21st century fairy tale with progressive fire in its belly.
When Coyne’s goons begin draining Iron Jo’s pond, Aurelie leads a protest march. Using the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” he and the workers of the village sing, “Clean the pond and save the forest/And tear Coyne Tower down.” Their revolution seems so contemporary that it would not have been surprising if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had shown up and asked Aurelie to endorse the Green New Deal.
By weaving together modernity and myth, Lorenc reminds us that fairy tales are what we make them. While “Iron John” spotlighted a misguided prince, Aurelie the Bold is about an uprising vast enough threaten the power of Coyne, who plans to plunge Aurelie’s village into a capitalistic grind by using the mega spa to turn customers into gold statues so that they will have to pay to be revived. Humanity, not an individual, is the hero this time.
Aurelie the Bold is a rare play that isn’t preachy or afraid to mean something. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to find out if Aurelie and friends clean the pond and save the forest, but it’s not a spoiler to say that the play is one of the most cheering Portland-area productions to emerge during the pandemic. When it’s over, you will be drenched in delightfulness—and ready to vote Aurelie-Skyler in 2024.
SEE IT: The Ballad of Aurelie the Bold: A Grimm Brothers Story of Iron & Gold streams at bagnbaggage.org through June 13. Tickets are pay what you will.