The Snow Queen
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
December 17, 2005
The easiest way to measure the worthiness of theater for children is by the behavior of its young audience. At The Snow Queen, the world premiere of Stanton Wood’s contemporary adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, the audience is engaged for the full hour. Hats off to an ensemble effort: clear storytelling, an energetic cast, easy yet magical sets, and whimsical costumes.
The story follows Gerda, a young woman who lives with her doting grandmother, and her best friend, Kay, who runs away from his bickering parents. Driven by her love for Kay, Gerda sets out to find him. Perilous adventures plague her along the way. She is taken by the River in New York, and swept into the sea, where she is embraced by Giant Squid in the Lake. Washed ashore in Brazil, she meets Yojaba, who presents her with a magic jacket. She puts it to good use in Patagonia, Argentina, where the evil Robber Maiden threatens her. She meets Reindeer, who is enslaved to the Robber Maiden and who, years before, was cursed by the Snow Queen to talk in silly rhymes when he told the Queen that her daughter had drowned. Gerda learns that Reindeer is the only one who can lead her to Kay. She promises to get the Snow Queen to lift the rhyming curse if he will take her. With some persuasion, both the Robber Maiden and Reindeer agree, and by the time Gerda reaches the South Pole, she finds Kay under the watchful eye of the Snow Queen, who is now numb to emotion since her loss years ago. With each passing day, Kay loses more of his capacity to feel. The sadness is almost gone, but so too is his ability to show affection. But, of course, this is a fairy tale and Gerda’s love and determination save the day.
Susan Heyward gives Gerda youthful energy, the kind of urban New York liveliness so familiar on the subway at the end of a school day. Her compact, neat movements make it seem like she is nearly bursting at times. Utkarsh S. Ambudkar offers a nice contrast in his interpretation of Kay. He is tall, gangly, and sad-eyed. He conveys his unhappiness in small, but meaningful ways, such as a shrug of his shoulder, his willful posture once he decides to run away, and his refusal to make eye contact when he is emotionally frozen. Lanna Joffrey delivers icy benevolence as the Snow Queen, firm guidance as Yojaba, and the necessary enthusiasm for evil in her frequent use of a whip as the Robber Maiden. (This was the only time a child cried and was dutifully taken out of the theatre—maybe it was only a tantrum.) Joffrey also gracefully manipulates the swathes of fabric that are the River.
But it is Ned Massey who has the best parts. As Gerda’s grandmother, he is wise, kindly, shuffling, and speaks as if his teeth were less than firmly set in his mouth. As a puppeteer, he manipulates a monkey, beautifully designed by Eric Wright, with marvelous dexterity. My favorite, though, is the Squid—an enormous monster who Massey endows with sluggish personality and moves with terrific nuance and humor. Simon, my six-year-old companion, voted for the Reindeer as his favorite. Sympathetic, downtrodden, and indecisive, the Reindeer is the play’s ‘Everyman’ and the only one with the power to deliver its happy ending.
Nadia Fadeeva’s costumes add immeasurable satisfaction to the visual experience. Layers of white fabric lift and flow from the Snow Queen. They sparkle even against her rhinestone tiara. Reindeer is covered antler to hoof in soft brown, and even Kay is covered in a ‘snow suit’ during his stay at the South Pole. Again, thumbs up for the costume (or is it a puppet?) of the Squid, which consumes half the stage.
Mikiko Suzuki’s use of fabric in the sets is effective. A river easily turns into the ocean when bolts of fabric flow from slots in the back wall. Appropriate projections keep the audience focused and support time and place in Gerda’s journey. One in particular gives the impression that Gerda is really riding on Reindeer’s back through the sky. At the outset, audience members receive a map of Gerda’s journey along with the program so they can follow along. It’s a nice touch and one that encourages a slight geography lesson later on.
Director Daniella Topol keeps the pace brisk. Wood’s story is clear and engaging. He offers several moments for audience participation and the peanut gallery accommodates, hurling encouraging words at the characters or clapping and moving to music. In his script, Wood incorporates the words “Shut up” a little too liberally for my taste. I find them harsh under any circumstances, but particularly for children. The only other criticism is for the person at Urban Stages who decided to delay the sold-out performance for the arrival of three people caught in traffic. That aside, The Snow Queen gave a solid afternoon of entertainment.