by Hazen Cuyler
It’s not an easy assignment to create children’s theatre. At its worst, the end result can give the impression of being generic or insincere. Blessed Unrest’s current production of The Snow Queen written by Matt Opartny, directed by Jessica Burr and playing at New Ohio Theatre, doesn’t totally avoid these pitfalls. But it gracefully makes up for any shortcomings with a charismatic cast and talented director, guiding the way home.
The Snow Queen, originally written by Hans Christian Anderson, revolves around a young girl named Gerda and her best friend in the world, a young boy named Kay. They’re neighbors, inseparable and as close as friends can be. As seasons change, and the climate transitions them from examining details in roses to examining details in snowflakes, Kay is struck by something sharp and painful. It enters his eye and his heart. Instantly, a sweet child becomes cruel; seeing only ugliness in those he once loved and feeling nothing in his heart. Neither Gerda nor his grandmother know what has happened to him. Another storm blows in. And with it comes a woman who Kay says is The Snow Queen. He follows after her and disappears. As months go on without Kay’s return, Gerda finally begins to accept that he is dead. She declares this to the river and to the roses and they tell her she’s wrong. And so Gerda’s long journey to find her friend begins.
Hans Christian Anderson’s story remains the same in this welcomed adaptation by Matt Opartny, but the dialogue and humor veer a bit more into modern slapstick. Mr. Opartny is surprisingly effective at translating the original narrative-driven story into a full-length play of dialogue. His script maintains the feeling of the original tale, while making the story totally accessible to 21 century children (and any other theatre audience for that matter).
Nancy McArthur carries the show as Gerda. Reminiscent of Jean Seberg in Godard’s “Breathless,” Ms. McArthur embodies a complex ambiguity and maintains an inner life so often neutral and without judgment, yet so specific, that she is utterly entrancing.
Kay, who remains in the background for nearly the entire production, is played with an emotional intelligence by Todd Grace. Mr. Grace captures childlike-innocence-turn-
The rest of the talented and versatile cast take on multiple entertaining characters. Rich Brown and Joshua Wynter simultaneously play Ba, an overly enthusiastic reindeer. And it’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen in a while. If the performance were captured on film, Ba would be an instant Disney classic. Tatyana Kot is dynamic in each role; from her captivating and stoic Snow Queen to the young Bandit Girl with rough and un-refined impulses. Celli Pitt reveals a loving, sensitive and aging Grandma who becomes a more wearied matriarch. Her talent is only accentuated by her resounding singing voice.
Costumes by Sydney Maresca are vibrant, playful and textured, harkening back to the original Hans Christian Anderson story. Sound design by Beth Lake ease us in and out of vivid, masterful atmospheres. Sam Vawter’s set is a perfectly adaptable environment enlivened by Jay Ryan’s transformative lighting design.
But the real star is Jessica Burr at the helm of this atmospheric sleigh ride. Snow squalls engulf the audience. Two empty children huddle in a void, mourning their lost childhoods. A young woman, bathed in the sun, stands alone on a warm rooftop after a long journey home. All of these moments are perfectly and instantly conveyed to the audience. And each are a gift given by Burr.
Which brings me to the “lows” portion of the production. This is a children’s show. And many of the characterizations are a bit hollow. My hunch is that deep down, artists often have a feeling of reservation when creating art meant for young audiences. And they don’t commit in the same way they would for articulate and intellectual adults. It is a deeper issue. One dealing with our perception of youth and entertainment and art. And It’s a subject for an entirely different essay.
But these “lows” are minor in what was an artistically satisfying afternoon. It’s comforting to know that, despite these brief philosophical criticisms, quality children’s theatre can provide equal meaning for adults. That someone can show up to a dusty old theater and suddenly have their inner child woken up to see the world a little bit more clearly, is something to be grateful for in this New Year.
New Ohio Theatre – 154 Christopher St. New York, NY
Running Time: 80 Minutes (no intermission)
Thru January 14.
Photos: Maria Baranova