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'Snow' Wonder

Victory Gardens turns Andersen's classic into mystical musical

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
December 8, 2006

It all begins with a "once upon a time" courtesy of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), the fabled storyteller, poet, novelist, playwright, travel writer and performer who was born to a poor Danish shoemaker and a washerwoman, and who, from earliest childhood, was fascinated by folklore, puppetry and the theater.

It helped, of course, that Andersen suffered a long (some would say lifelong) and exceptionally painful coming-of-age that resulted in a highly sensitive and compassionate nature and a gift for imaginatively transforming his perception of the world into such classic fairy tales as "The Ugly Duckling," "The Little Mermaid" and "The Snow Queen."

Now, "The Snow Queen" a mystical seven-part tale about the separation and reunification of devoted childhood playmates -- has become the source of a new holiday musical to receive its world premiere Monday night at Victory Gardens Theater. And anyone who has experienced the very particular gifts of the show's creative team -- composer-musician Michael Smith, director Frank Galati, puppet master Blair Thomas and costume designer Tatjana Radisic -- will quickly guess that this will be no ordinary fairy tale rendering.

Nor is Andersen's tale a simple "into the woods" excursion. Rather, it is the story of good and evil, innocence and experience and some very strange doings in a place with a wind chill factor even frostier than Chicago's. At its center are Gerda and her male friend, Kai. They are torn apart by the effects of an evil troll's shattered mirror, whose splinters warp Kai's vision and freeze his heart, so that all the good and beautiful aspects of people are shrunk to nothing and all the bad and ugly aspects are magnified.

Kai is abducted to the arctic empire of the Snow Queen and assumed dead. Gerda, believing he is still alive, embarks on a great odyssey in search of her friend -- one that leads her through many trials and tribulations and encounters with an old sorceress, a couple of crows, a princess, a robber hag and her daughter, a captive reindeer, a Lapp Woman, a Finn Woman and many others before they both return home.

Three actors -- Mattie Hawkinson (Gerda), Northwestern University junior Andrew Keltz (Kai) and Cheryl Lynn Bruce (the Storyteller) -- interact with a trio of puppeteers (Jayson Rackley, Erik Wetz and Barbara Whitney) and a sextet of musicians that includes Smith and Chris Walz (guitars/vocals), Barbara Barrow and Linda M. Smith (keyboards/vocals), Kat Eggleston (guitar/vocal) and percussionist Andrew Shepherdstone.

Will "The Snow Queen" become the annual holiday season cash cow for Victory Gardens?

"It's very possible," said the theater's artistic director, Dennis Zacek, whose options have expanded considerably since Victory Gardens opened its new home at the Biograph. "This is a big show and we couldn't have done it in any of the Greenhouse spaces (Victory Gardens' old home), but we might well stage our winter subscription show there, and remount 'The Snow Queen' each year at the Biograph."

Here's a closer look at the ideas of the principal members of the creative team for "The Snow Queen":

FRANK GALATI, DIRECTOR

Frank Galati, coming straight off his work on "The Pirate Queen," admits he wasn't at all familiar with the story of "The Snow Queen" when he began work on the project.

"I wasn't really into children's lit too much as a kid," he recalled. "I had my 12-volume Marshall Field's Book House series. But Michael Smith knew the fairy tale as a child and was mesmerized by it, and once I'd read it I was fascinated by how mysterious and almost oblique it was. And Michael's interpretation, which is such a powerful reflection of his strikingly individual voice, is a unique retelling."

Galati also was intrigued by Hans Christian Andersen's life and pathology.

"He was fairly psychologically disabled as an adult, and the way the fairy tales dredged up his childhood fears and anxieties is so intriguing," said the director. "But Andersen also was very much a man of the theater -- an actor, a playwright, a storyteller. And the great critic Harold Bloom puts him on the same shelf as Kierkegaard [the Danish philosopher often referred to as "the first existentialist"] -- a writer who could conjure the terrors of non-being, the specter of death and sexuality."

In "The Snow Queen" it is a young female character who enters an almost "Odyssean labyrinth as she embarks on a hallucinatory journey to find her abducted friend," said Galati. "There is a rescue, and a state of transcendence that is almost Wagnerian. And I think it is so interesting that Andersen often did intricate paper cut-outs as he told his stories, and they were filled with swans and flowers and palm trees and witches and vines and hearts and a strange kind of Christian iconography. There is sanctity and chastity and romance in this story, and a sense of trying to leave childhood and grow up."

Galati admits that some might think the story is too dark for children, but he disagrees. "Just look at 'Harry Potter' and 'Star Wars' and even 'A Christmas Carol,' " he said.

BLAIR THOMAS, PUPPETS AND VISUAL DESIGNER

This is the first time master puppeteer Blair Thomas has worked with Frank Galati. But Chicago audiences know Thomas' work well -- as a Redmoon Theatre founder and subsequently director of his own Blair Thomas & Co., and as an Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute who this year had the honor of serving as the first Jim Henson artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, the place where the Muppets began.

"This is not a puppet show in any traditional sense," said Thomas, "though there is a puppet for the enchantress of the title. And there are other mother figures who all try to inhibit Gerda and Kai, which certainly connects to Andersen's weirdness and lack of adolescent sexual development."

The 7-foot Snow Queen is what is dubbed in the trade "a helmet head with a backpack," meaning the puppeteer wears a helmet bearing the character's head while a backpack supports the body. Another of the puppets, an old crone, is "a six-hand hunchback," with three puppeteers required to manipulate it. There also are rod puppets for the crows (who sing), and many manipulated "puppet objects," including tree branches, windows, doors, sleds, roses and bumble bees."

"I'm highly theatrical," confessed Thomas, "and Frank [Galati] is a real minimalist who believes in the actors and their spoken words. So it's a matter of incorporating the unearthly with the simplest type of transformation."

Thomas' most crucial contribution here is three scrolls of 130 feet each that are hand-cranked to reveal a black-and-white ink-painted backdrop.

"It's not a stenographic accounting of the story, but an interpretation via images that helps connect the music, poetry, actors and puppets."

"There's no real talk of time and place," says Thomas. "And I love the way Michael [Smith] just goes with the anachronistic and authentic. When he says 'hit man' he means it; talk of 'the evening news' rings true. And he doesn't write show tunes; he's created a beautiful folk-rock sound, and five of the six musicians sing, like balladeers."

TATJANA RADISIC, COSTUME DESIGNER

Costume designer Tatjana Radisic was in absentia for much of the costume-building process for this show; she was in her native Belgrade awaiting news of a new visa, which she finally received. But she created her designs before leaving and left them in the capable hands of her longtime assistant, Diane Fairchild, "without whom the whole long-distance process would have been impossible."

Radisic, who has worked with Blair Thomas (on "Pierrot Lunaire"), as well as Redmoon, Court and Steppenwolf, said she knew "The Snow Queen" story since childhood and was always fascinated by "its loveliness, simplicity, courage, imagination."

Inspiration for the costumes began with "the Nordic busy style -- lots of textures, layers, bright colors and unusual solid shapes."

The goal? "To translate that beautiful Nordic nature by way of inconspicuous details and living in the world of imagination."

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