Hans Christian, You Must Be an Angel

At the dimly light, lightly enchanting dinner party thrown for Hans Christian Andersen at the Kennedy Center this past weekend, all of the guests — each one a character from the Danish storyteller’s writings — were invisible.
What appears at first to be a long empty table quickly becomes a multi-sensory puzzle for audiences (a good portion of which are children) to spend an hour working out. Which Andersen character sits where, and how can you tell simply from the place setting, a few small props, and a touch of light and magic?

The guests’ absence is a nice little touch of irony considering how indelibly they have marked our modern-day imaginations. Even 130 years after Andersen died in Copenhagen, 4,000 miles away, American children and adults alike need only muse for half a second to recall the classic stories of misfits like Thumbelina and the Ugly Duckling, or of the heroic Little Mermaid and the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Although with twenty chairs occupied, you’ll find yourself recognizing only certain figures and scratching your head over others.

The show, created by Denmark’s Teatret Gruppe 38 and presented as part of the inaugural Nordic Cool Festival, takes a nicely balanced tack with the source material, engaging audience members regardless of the degree to which they are familiar with Hans Christian Andersen. The two live performers (Bodil Alling and Joakim Eggert, playing the waiters) invite us to stand all around the table, narrating the play-by-play activities among the guests accompanied by some nice little bits of stagecraft involving trick props, bits of puppetry, and inventive use of light and video. In this way, attendees who know Andersen’s stories are not subjected to lengthy re-tellings, while those who don’t know his stories are soon tickled enough to explore further on their own the next time bedtime — or a trip to the library — rolls around.

TeatretGruppe38 video, 2008

Some characters are easier to guess than others. The place setting at which a smooth, hard pea taps and rattles along the inside rim of a lazily revolving plate clearly represents “The Princess and the Pea.” The bubbling bowl of soup placed at the chair that rains, via tiny pipes, into a puddle on the floor must be the “Little Mermaid.” And in a lovely little sub-plot, the “Ugly Duckling”‘s chair — which quacks, of course — can’t find a place at the table without being elbowed out.

Other seats are trickier. After we spend a while watching the servers load small plastic farm animals onto a metal scale balanced by a small white egg (projected onto which, ingeniously, is a one-inch-square video of a face) we realize this is the lesser-known fable of the overconfident “Woman with the Eggs.” And we discover the fable of the “Snowman
(in love with a stove) through the remnants of the melted hero, rather than the hero itself.

The longer you look, the more witty details you spot. The Steadfast Tin Soldier’s chair stands, just as its occupant does, upon only one leg. The mermaid’s drink glass contains, via video, a whirlwind of swimming fish.

The Nordic Cool Festival
February 19 – March 17, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Free and ticketed events
Mondays thru Sundays
Details and tickets
Often the focus is diffused across the table, which allows each audience member focus on whatever bit of funny business they choose. And indeed, much fun arises from bad behavior. The guests may go unseen by the naked eye, but each one attempts to sway the proceedings in often funny, sometimes disturbing ways. Good laughs rose from Sunday’s audience as we watched the guests try to undermine the cordial meal by dosing out some mischievous, Carroll-esque bits of nonsense, puns, and pranks. Alling and Eggert — playing sage mentor and bumbling trainee, respectively — have a ball feigning concern over the circus that begins to play out.

The guests speak no words. Small sounds come from all angles. A prop hops upon the table. A flash of light glints off the silverware. It’s an eerie affair, at times evoking the hushed anticipatory air of a seance. These are ghosts we are privy to, the impish spirits of bygone bedtimes.

Kid-friendly? Yes and no. Some American theatregoers may have hoped to bring their kids to a brighter, chirpier manifestation of Andersen’s book of tales. But this is something more ambitious: a show that highlights the spaces left behind rather than the spaces taken up. Hans Christian, You Must Be an Angel tests the tenacity of our childhood imaginations by challenging us to tread the path ourselves, to parse the dark for clues to the good old days, and to make something out of seemingly nothing.

This performance has closed.

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Hans Christian, You Must Be an Angel . Created and performed by Teatret Gruppe 38 , February 23 and 24,2013. Presented by The Kennedy Center as part of Nordic Cool 2013 . Reviewed by Hunter Styles

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