Playwrights’ Center Theater for Young Audiences

at the Upstage Theater


Chi-Town Puppet Theatre

at Bailiwick Repertory

The works of Hans Christian Andersen are not as difficult to adapt to our modern idiom as, say, the often grotesquely violent tales of the Brothers Grimm. Nevertheless Andersen’s stories reflect his time–the mid-19th century, when many adults were enamored of the romantic idea of “childlike innocence,” a quality projected even more onto actual children and particularly the children of well-to-do parents. Of course imagination itself never goes out of fashion, but today many of Andersen’s tales may appear cumbersome, oversentimental, and rather elitist. Making these stories speak to our culture is a challenge undertaken by two theater companies, the Playwrights’ Center Theater for Young Audiences and the Chi-Town Puppet Theatre, in productions based on Andersen’s The Fir Tree and The Snow Queen respectively.

The Fir Tree is a rather bare little fable of the life and death of a Christmas tree: the sapling longs to grow up and learn more of the world, then regrets the loss of its idyllic youth (a message probably lost on most children). As adapted by James Engelhardt, however, The Fir Tree also becomes a parable about heroic fathers, widowed mothers, reverence for wildlife, preservation of the environment, and the inherent maturity of being good to others. The plot has been expanded so that the tree’s growth parallels the growth of young Erica, whose father died fighting a forest fire and who develops from an angry, selfish child into a kind, responsible young woman. Eventually Erica uses the knowledge she’s gained to save a forest tree from destruction by a careless blaze, an action that ties together several themes.

This Fir Tree has songs as well–many, many songs, lovingly written by Carol Weiss. Characters only mentioned in passing in Andersen’s tale, such as a philistine rat, here provide the occasion for yet another song–in the case of the rat, a rollicking “In the Larder” that sounds suspiciously like the Village People’s disco hit “In the Navy.” As a matter of fact, all of Weiss’s competent and well-written songs tend to awaken deja vu flashes of, among others, The Fantasticks, Pippin, and Mary Poppins.

The result is a “children’s play” only in the sense that Sondheim’s Into the Woods is a children’s play: there’s enough densely packed material to supply several plays. The many auxiliary characters–woodland flora and fauna as well as two comic servants right out of Walt Disney, speaking in those impossibly exaggerated cartoon voices that should be banned from children’s theater–may represent an effort to “liven things up” for short attention spans, but they merely slow the action. If younger children grow restless, however, older ones are likely to appreciate the eminently tuneworthy music, sung with professional ease by Lara Filip as the tree, Mary Nesseler as Erica, and Lori Baur, Jeff Pohl, and Kay Frances as everybody else, to the equally professional guitar accompaniment of George Sawyn.

The Snow Queen seems a better choice for young audiences. It’s essentially an adventure saga: a brave young woman saves her best friend from an evil spell that turns hearts cold and vision misanthropic. Though Andersen’s picaresque tale is told in six distinct episodes, Chi-Town Puppet Theatre’s production is remarkably clean and uncluttered, even with the inclusion of several songs (given a contemporary feel and performed with ingenuous poise by Gene DeLuca and Clair Twist).

In the story as adapted by E. Hugh Manning, Guerda and Kay are a sister and brother living with their grandmother, who possesses a magic rosebush that blooms year-round. This so incenses the Snow Queen that she offers to buy it, and when her offer is refused she hypnotizes Kay into running away with her. Guerda vows to bring him back. (“Now Guerda’s out to even the score,” she sings. “The Queen thinks she’s slick / But Guerda’s too quick / And I’ll show that wicked woman / What Guerda can do!”) Along the way she’s aided by the Prince of Seriousity, to whom she brings laughter, and a female bandit chief, to whom she brings friendship. Finally she invades the castle of “Her Frigidness” (guarded by polar bears who, though they’re the most simply constructed of the puppets, get the biggest laugh) and frees Kay from his imprisoning trance.

One is tempted to enumerate the kiddie-drama cliches missing from this show. The characters speak in natural human voices, achieving a variety of personalities without slipping into caricature (though the Snow Queen does look and sound vaguely like Joan Collins in Dynasty), and the sly references meant for adults (such as the narrator singing a snippet of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”) are kept to a minimum. The action is simple and swiftly paced–despite or perhaps because of the narrator’s hilarious habit of suggesting several story-telling possibilities before choosing one, with characters and props scrambling to follow his train of thought.

An inflexible taped sound track and the show’s several characters keep the three agile puppeteers–Jim Grote, Scott Swenson, and Cindy Tegtmeyer–busy, but their work pays off. The Snow Queen is fresh, unpretentious entertainment whose technical expertise will interest adults while its imagination amuses their children.