Review by Joe Eriole
In the modern era, many have come to the unfortunate conclusion that the supernatural is nothing more than that which science has not yet, but inevitably will, explain. “The Snow Queen” reminds us that for most of human history, the supernatural was understood to be real and ever-present. And, in the ordinary course of things, its spirits and forces were thought to operate with gleeful enmity toward our simple joys. Taking advantage of our human frailties, the legends of our ancestors illuminate a world in which the elements against which we struggled for survival were personified by spirits, who interfered whenever they could to stop us in achieving the peace and prosperity we sought in this life. The “fairy tales” of every era, no less dark and filled with very grown up cautionary lessons than the epic tales of any Norse or Greek mythological deity, have, in our skeptical age, been softened to become G-rated children’s films.
Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen was first published in 1844, at a time when our modern age was finding its legs, but the ancient legends and beliefs still held sway in most of the world. Even now, the reality of things supernatural seems to hold on most tenaciously in places where the elements continue to challenge us most. In the ice-locked northern world of Andersen’s story, one finds it easy to believe in another dimension – the landscapes are breathtaking and bone-chilling all at once, and the solitary sounds of the rare things that can live in those places carry over those illuminated landscapes like the cries of ghosts to this day.
The story centers on the odyssey of Gerda as she seeks to find and free her childhood friend, Kai. From the clutches of the Snow Queen. The malevolent Queen has bewitched Kai so that he no longer wants, or even sees, the simple joys of their childhood life together, nor is he the least bit concerned with pursuing the inevitable love story for which he and Gerda were obviously destined.
In the adaptation presented at Ancram Opera House, Barbara Weichmann, laudably, gives us the haunting story much as its author first presented it. The elevated and poetic language of the 19th century is preserved, and the magical quality of the story is likewise elevated as a result.
Weichmann also wrote the lyrics to the music written by Lisa Dove. The music is complicated; one senses that it was not easy to master for the musicians or the vocalists. To Dove’s credit, she has not written a conceit – despite the clear sense that the compositions are ambitious; they are also unpretentious and melodic. The show’s Musical Director, Elizabeth Gerbi, is also the show’s conductor and pianist, and her work is among the most notable in the entire production. The three musicians (Gerbi, piano, Louis Rizzo, cello and Emma Piazza, violin) remain on stage throughout the show, and each display a mastery of their instrument. In addition to conducting and playing, Gerbi also uses the piano and leads the musicians in providing not just support for the vocalists, but as needed, cheerful or haunting ambience and even sound effects, throughout the play.
The intimate Opera House space is decked entirely in white, and dressed with white cutouts dangling from the ceiling that give the impression of jagged and dangerous snowflakes. The effect is mesmerizing. Much credit is due the team responsible for the engaging sense of place achieved despite limiting themselves to the single, and stunning, white palette (Scenic Design, Sarah Edkins, Lighting Design, Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa, Set Construction, Doug Diaz). As soon as you enter the space, you know you have left one realm and entered another; it is not just the Snow Queen’s world; it is the effect theater itself can have when a set is thoughtfully designed and constructed.
The costumes (Denise R. Massman) are appealing takes on 19th century style, designed to stand out against the glowing whiteness of the set, while remaining evocative of the icy world in which the characters operate.
The result of this careful attention is that the play is immediately and always visually pleasing and immersive. Director Jeffrey Mousseau has brought together with great care the promise of both a vision and an ethos in this presentation, and his cast delivers on the promise.
As a general observation, the most notable weakness of the adaptation is that, despite its title, the audience is given too little of the sinister Snow Queen herself. Cheyenne See’s robust voice and commanding presence gives us every bit the menacing spirit she is meant to be; it is a credit to the quality of her performance that we wish we saw the Queen more often.
The play opens with Shawn Adiletta endearingly playing “Boy”, listening with youthful wonder to his older self (played with stately sensitivity by James Occhino) as he relates the memory of the dream which drives the plot. But Adiletta gives an equally effective turn as the mature narrator of his own story , who confidently wrests control as the narrative closes.
The couple whose love story provides the engine for the play are played by Adam Basco-Mahieddine as Kai and Katie Birenboim as Gerda. Basco-Mahieddine captures the eerie distant countenance necessary to drive the plot as the bewitched Kai. Birenboim is equal parts delight and resolve, in fine voice throughout and delivering a Gerdas who is charming while always giving the sense that she is up to meeting the challenges she faces on her journey.
Lauren Bell’s Robber Girl is a scene-stealing whirlwind of a character. In less capable hands, Robber Girl might be limited to comic relief – and indeed, Ms. Bell is funny. But even in this flight of imagination and fancy, Bell provides us the most intriguing and subtle character of the play; her Robber Girl makes us laugh, expresses our less noble inner dialogues, and then breaks our heart with the story’s most compelling turn.
In the dual roles of Grandmother and Lapp Woman, Sandra Boynton is a joy. Boynton lifts the energy of the show and starts the true narrative on its path with a rousing song as Grandmother that lights up the stage, and every time we see her on stage again, we are happier for it.
Rounding out the appealing cast is Brian Demar Jones, rendering a sweetly tragic and very funny Crow, Sandy York, who provides jolts of energy in each of her appearances as Old Woman & Robber Mother, and David Perez-Ribada as Prince/Bae. Perez-Ribada is particularly enchanting as the noble Bae, a reindeer struggling against his own oppressions as he helps Gerda in her journey. Perez-Ribada’s Bae is dear to us as soon as we meet him.
As in all “hero’s quest” stories, Gerda must pass through various trials and tribulations, alternately helped and thwarted by those she encounters along the way; the kindness of strangers and the unpredictable treachery and danger they present are a reflection of each of our lives. We are called, at our best, not to a life free of such risks, but to soldier on despite them. In Andersen’s story, Gerda, of course, saves Kai with Love’s true kiss. Ah…the ending we need, indeed. We do not give too much away, I assure you; the intention is to encourage you to see Gerda’s journey unfold in Ancram.
Ancram Opera House continues to make intriguing choices in its program, and The Snow Queen is evidence of its commitment to the whole sense experience that such an intimate house cabn generate when attention to talent and detail is properly paid.