The Snow Hen
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
February 11, 2006
My sensible side tells me that The Debate Society couldn’t have arranged for this weekend’s blizzard to coincide with their opening; but after seeing their enchanting new work The Snow Hen on that first night, it almost seems possible.
The show’s creators and stars, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, were inspired by a Norwegian folktale from the time of the Black Plague. In the folktale, a young girl is the only survivor of a plague-ridden village; before her mother left her and went to die, she tucked the girl into bed, calling her “my little snow hen” as she said farewell. By the time the girl was found years later, the story goes, she had sprouted feathers.
Bos and Thureen, under the direction of Oliver Butler, set the story closer to our time and begin by imagining just how the girl, now older, spends her days alone. Following instructions left by her parents long ago, the girl, played by Bos, starts an electric generator each morning, fetches water, and finds food. She explores the deserted country around her cabin, bringing back random odds and ends—an old hair dryer, a globe, a tuna can—and carefully examines each one like an archeologist, cleaning each find with a rag and a plant mister before measuring it and then tagging it with a slip of paper. She entertains herself by listening to an old motivational audiotape, or by putting on sunglasses and watching the Northern Lights outside. But she is clearly lonely—she pretends she has guests when she eats her dinner, and dreams each night of long-past birthday parties.
As lonely as she is, it is still a shock when Thureen, playing a similarly solitary wanderer, bursts into her cabin one night and collapses from exhaustion. At first the girl is terrified of him and hides behind her bed; then she curiously tries to tag him as if he were one of her finds. He’s just as unsure of her when he wakes up. But their craving for company eventually makes them warm to each other; they invent games, they watch a clip of an old movie on a discarded film projector, and one night he gives her a treasured necklace from his own collection of things he’s found. After some time together, though, both are reminded of the plague that has touched their world, and of how much those losses hurt—and he begins to wonder whether he can stay with her after all.
The production has a wonderful dreamlike quality, in that it’s not completely fantastical—it’s just fantastical enough, grounded with enough of the real to lull you in. Sydney Maresca’s costume design gives Bos a scraggly chicken tail, but also gives her a tattered girl’s dress with a hole in the back, right where a little girl would cut one if she really were suddenly growing a chicken tail. The girl’s one-room cabin is a riot of detail, but is also tiny as a Hobbit’s hole. When threatened, the girl arms herself not with any sort of magical weapon, but with ordinary things like toy axes or wooden spoons.
Then there are the performers. Bos and Thureen impressively carry the bulk of the play without speaking—aside from a recorded introduction to the story, and a bit of the girl listening to her tape, the first half of the play is wordless. Even after their first meeting, the pair don’t speak much, due to either shyness or just not being used to talking; they prefer to communicate through gestures, or just looking at each other and guessing each other’s thoughts. Fortunately, both are wonderfully evocative even without saying a word; Thureen has a haunted look that hints at some of the things he’s seen in his travels, while Bos has the endearing naïveté of a curious child left to invent her own way of being in the world.
In fact, Bos is so good at playing “childlike” that for most of the play I thought the character actually was a child—something that gave one of the later scenes between the pair a briefly uncomfortable (and probably unintentional) undertone until I realized how old her character actually might really be. One other scene towards the end also had me confused—I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be a shared dream, one of their memories, or something that actually happened to the pair.
But these become minor points when compared to the strength of the rest of the work. Like most dreams or fairy tales, there’s a good deal of truth in the tale woven here, about how strong our need for companionship is, and how hard that can sometimes be to sustain. It’s the sense of wonder that drew me in, though; and did so strongly enough to make me feel that the city’s biggest snowstorm was all somehow part of the story.