It's a stick, not an ax, and it doesn't even touch Nikki Weaver's outstretched wrists when Chris Harder (playing her dad) lowers it with a bang to mime chopping off Weaver's hands. Still, you can't help but flinch at her harrowing screams that last for a very disturbing 30 seconds.
The Brothers Grimm's "The Handless Maiden" is one of the four fairy tales and myths in Shaking the Tree's Head. Hands. Feet. (directed by Samantha Van Der Merwe). The first half is a series of devised vignettes that tell three fairy tales, and the second half is an adaptation of the Greek tale of Iphigenia. All four stories feature a female lead who gets dismembered in some way.
With such a slaughterfest, it's surprising to find that Shaking the Tree's warehouse looks like some kind of elvish spa. The set is pale blue, and the sound of trickling water plays through the speakers. Like a lot of Van Der Merwe's work, the play starts before you sit down. The actors carefully take the hands of audience members and lead them to a sink, where other actors delicately wash the audience's hands.
Even with the likes of Weaver's harrowing scream and a few eerie jump scares, the first half manages to feel light and (disarmingly?) funny. The stories are dotted with fairy-tale weirdness, and the minimal set and dialogue lend the play to tons of impressive miming: Actors double as trees, doors and kitchen appliances.
The second half, though, is much more dense and heavy. There's way less abstraction and way more dialogue. There are still some welcomingly off-beat moments, as when Iphigenia (Claire Aldridge) tells her parents, "Hell is dark and creepy, and I have no friends there," or when Clytemnestra (Jamie M. Rea) tells Iphigenia, "Your father intends to sacrifice you," in that mom voice usually used to disapprove of much more banal things.
But ultimately, it's the images that stick with you. Head. Hands. Feet. doesn't sugarcoat the gruesome, but it also doesn't seem to fear that it's capable of corrupting the beautiful.
SEE IT: Head. Hands. Feet. plays at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., shaking-the-tree.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 5 pm Sunday. Through Nov. 5. $25.