Synetic, having conjured Hell in the Rosslyn Spectrum (twice: Faust and Dante) and having created Shakespeare out of wordlessness (numerous times), did not scruple at summoning a surprise snowstorm to usher in its Family Theater’s* production of The Snow Queen. (Could they not next produce The Money King?) Nor is this the only bit of magicking afoot in this lovely and exciting production. The Snow Queen is the longest and one of the most melancholy stories in the entire Hans Christian Anderson oeuvre, but in the brisk and efficient hands of adapter/director Lilia Slavova, it is a heart-in-mouth drama for young people with a happy ending, and it clocks in at just over one hour.
Let’s say it again: All Hail Synetic!
You probably know this story, but to review for those who don’t (and you really should read it – it’s Anderson at his best), there is an evil mirror in the sky which makes beautiful things ugly, and magnifies flaws until they seem to fill the whole field of vision. (Anderson thus anticipated television and the Internet by more than a century). One day it shatters, and its shards and splinters wander the windy Danish skies. If they lodge in your eye, you will see only the world’s ugliness; if they lodge in your heart, you will feel only the world’s pain.
On earth below, the young friends Gerda (June Schreiner) and Kai (Sean Pedersen) embrace the world’s joy fiercely, racing, skating, sledding, and playing hide-and-seek. They live together with Gerda’s granny (Sarah Thomas), materially poor but sufficiently insulated with love against poverty’s effects. However, one day the Snow Queen (Morgaine Gooding) decides that she wants Kai for her own, and there is nothing that can deter her. Kai becomes infected, eye and heart, by the toxic glass, and thereafter, his values perverted, he abandons his loving family for the Snow Queen’s terrible palace.
There are a million stories like this, and most end here. But The Snow Queen’s virtue is the persistence of the little girl, Gerda, who travels Denmark’s vast northlands guided only by a somewhat self-important crow (alternately, Alex Vernon and Petko Kolev), who takes them as far as the palace of a childlike Prince and Princess (Vernon and Gooding). The royal pair bestows a gold carriage and a magnificent snorting, prancing horse (Thomas) upon Gerda. This lasts as long as it takes a robber band (the cast) to fall upon them. One of the robbers (Gooding) takes pity on Gerda for her mission, and gives her a reindeer who knows the way to the Snow Queen’s palace. Once there, Gerda vanquishes her nemesis with her virtue and passion; her tears wash away the glass in Kai’s body, and he is able to see and feel truly again.
This is Hans Christian Anderson, but don’t forget that it’s also Synetic. That means the actors move vividly and imaginatively, with clockwork precision (old pro Irakli Kavsadze is the movement director), wearing magnificent costumes which suggest the swirling snow (Alisa Mandel is the costume designer). Stageworthy crows and reindeer being in short supply, some of the story was told using beautiful bunraku puppets (courtesy of Julia Tasheva), which the actors manipulate expertly. For certain scenes – the sledding scenes, for example – Gerda and Kai also appear as bunraku puppets. This is just fine with the kids in the audience, particularly those too young to distinguish between fiction and reality, who are equally satisfied to see Gerda represented by a puppet as to see her represented by an actor.
I liked the production, but I wasn’t the target audience. Of more significance, the theater was full of wide-eyed, open-mouthed kids who at that moment were closer to the Arctic Circle than they were to the snows of Shirlington. It helps that the actors – particularly Kolev, a musician who, satisfactorily, made his acting debut in the show I saw, and Vernon – could interact with the kids while remaining in character. At one point Kolev, as a traveling troubadour, asked the audience whether the crow could show Gerda the way to the Snow Princess’ palace. “No!” shouted a particularly assertive youngster. The crow, at that point voiced by Vernon, put on so outrageous a fuss that the kids were in stitches.
There is a great deal of good work on stage, in particular by Gooding, who inhabits three completely different characters, all of whom could have been played as caricatures, with depth and specificity. Schreiner, too, establishes her character’s sweetness and virtue early, and makes a believable heroine. I had some trouble believing Pedersen as Kai went through his transformations, but he makes for an appealing character as well.
Truth is, it is a wonderful thing to take a young child to the theater, and in particular to a production done with as much obvious care as this one. Kids love the fanfare of a theatrical production, and I don’t care how big your wide-screen is, the character who appear on stage are bigger than the ones on your TV. (The stories are better, too. I don’t guarantee that children who see live theater will want to go back to television afterward). In the production I attended, three kids (including a bewildered two-year-old) were led onto the stage to celebrate their birthdays. Schreiner sang happy birthday to them – in Danish. Afterward they got autographed posters of the show, and the whole audience sang happy birthday (in English), and then the everyone repaired to the lobby for opening day cake. Tell me, does Spongebob ever do that for your kids?
The Snow Queen
Adapted by Lilia Slavova from a story by Hans Christian Anderson
Directed by Lilia Slavova
Produced by Synetic Family Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
* Synetic Family Theater is the new name for Classika Theater.
The Snow Queen runs through Jan 10th. Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.