Dec 032011

Along with its puppets and spectacle, The Snow Queen gives the audience a chance to become part of the action. Kids of all ages are invited to put down their electronic toys and enter a fanciful—rather than frenzied—theatrical world.

The Snow Queen. Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, MA, December 10–31.

By Bill Marx.

Scott Ray (Kai) and Lisa Maley (Gerda) in rehearsal for The Snow Queen

Given the continued onslaught of iPods and video games on what’s left of childhood, it is heartening when a stage company sets out to create a production that appeals to the young and old, its express purpose to make playful use of the creative powers of live theater. The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) is adding to its winter lineup the world premiere production of an adaptation (by Tyler Monroe) of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, with a cast featuring members of the A.R.T. Institute Class of 2012.

Allegra Libonati, the Artistic Associate at the A.R.T. is at the helm: up to now she has had a hand in some pretty adult stuff at the theater—Resident Director for The Donkey Show, Associate Director for Prometheus Bound, and Assistant Director for Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera. A visit to an early rehearsal of The Snow Queen suggests a less strident techno-aural approach to Andersen’s innocently magical yarn, which revolves around the abduction of a young boy, Kai, by the manipulative Snow Queen. The lad’s friend, Gerda, goes on a quest to the icy wastes to save him, encountering enchanted (and ornery) people as well as talking beasts and birds along the way. Some of the latter critters take the form of puppets large and small designed by Michael Kane, who has a background with Bread and Puppet Theater.

Along with its masks and spectacle, Libonati’s Snow Queen encourages the audience to become part of the action. Kids of all ages are invited to forgo their electronic toys and enter a fanciful—rather than frenzied—fantasy world.

Below are director Libonati’s responses to my questions about staging a new version of The Snow Queen.

Arts Fuse: What made you want to adapt one of Hans Christian Andersen’s longest and most popular fairy tales, The Snow Queen, at this time?

Allegra Libonati: I’ve always been drawn to hero stories about bravery, but Andersen’s fairy tale is the only one I’ve found that so clearly and beautifully explores the power of friendship and showcases the innate strength found in innocence. The lush imagery, imaginative landscapes, and wild characters that Andersen created in this tale lend themselves very well to theatricality. The cast and I have had a wonderful time finding the physicality to make Andersen’s vision come to life, from page to stage.

The cast of THE SNOW QUEEN rehearsing a scene

AF: The fairy tale has inspired a number of adaptations, including animated films, operas, and musicals. Did any of those influence your adaptation? What guided your approach?

Libonati: We read many adaptations and watched many movies; but, in the end, our approach came from a spirit of play in the rehearsal room. We created an environment where we could tap into our own inner children and set about creating this show the same way a child plays make-believe: with everyday objects and a sense of wonderment.

AF: It is a challenge to create a theater piece that appeals to both adults and children. What tone are you aiming for—a cross between playful parody and seriousness?

Libonati: Andersen’s ability to write simultaneously for children and adults informed a lot of our creative decisions during the rehearsal process. Our adaptation aims to appeal to all ages by being a fun and engaging experience that children can enjoy with themes that adults can appreciate and visual images to capture everyone’s imagination.

AF: Why the mix of classical and modern music in your direction/adaptation?

Libonati: The music aims to mirror and highlight the main characters’ emotional journeys over the course of the show. As Gerda and Kai grow up, the audience can viscerally experience the steps of their development through this aural device, while intellectually understanding the story through the text. The breadth of music also reflects the many physical worlds of the tale, from the ethereal music of North Pole to the grittier sounds of the forest.

AF: The puppets, lighting, and pantomime also mix the cuddly and the intimidating—why that approach?

Libonati: Andersen’s works are so popular with children, in part, because he doesn’t condescend to them. We wanted to keep this spirit alive in our production. The mixture of cuddly and intimidating mirrors the experience of reading the fairytale itself.

AF: You have removed the Christian references in the tale. Why?

Labonati: We wanted to make sure the message of the show was not one of a specific religion but of the power of faith and love to conquer all adversity.

Scott Ray (Kai) and Lindsey Liberatore (Snow Queen) work with one of the masks during a rehearsal

AF: In what ways, if any, does theater for children have to change in the age of video games, iPods, etc?

Libonati: Theater for children grows more important in the age of video games: it develops their understanding of themselves as a human being in the world. Live theater allows children to become more aware of their own life and their relationship to a community. Specifically, fairy tales that deal with development, fears, and ambitions are of utmost importance to share with children.

AF: The sexuality in The Snow Queen seems pretty up front in this adaptation. Or am I wrong?

Labonati: It may have seemed that way in the early run you saw, when the actors were still discovering their characters. While Kai is certainly going on a journey through adolescence, we will not be showing this through a sexualized representation.


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