Written by Elizabeth Ann Foster
I was eagerly awaiting the latest in the series from the Ensemble for the Romantic Century. The last in the series “Maestro” was a wonderful multi media production written by Eve Wolf about the life and work of conductor Arturo Toscanini. “Hans Christian Andersen Tales Real & Imagined” is her latest piece but less integrated and compelling as “Maestro.”
The play is staged in the black box theatre at the The Duke on 42nd Street. It is a wonderful venue with rehearsal spaces for broadway productions, not-for-profit and small company productions all working side-by-side.
This multi media production showcased piano music scored for four hands, puppets and marionettes, countertenor solo performances, and a stage within the stage highlighting short performances and reenactments, real or imagined, from the life of fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen (Jimmy Ray Bennett).
The play opens with Andersen wearing wings coming back to reflect on his life. He starts off with “The Princess and The Pea” and uses a marionette puppet of a princess to recreate the scene of her lying on all the mattresses trying to get comfortable. No one believed she was a princess showing up drenched at the door. Andersen addresses the audience directly “You ask Who I am then?… Do you want to hear a true story …The Fairy Tale of my Life?”
It is a fairy tale of rags to riches.
Wolf attempts to show autobiographical connections of Hans Christian Andersen’s life to his fairy tales. This was achieved with the fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling” reflecting on Andersen’s awkward adolescence. This includes trying out for the ballet, singing and writing plays, in which he showed little talent.
Born the son of an alcoholic wash woman and beggar, Andersen’s father died when he was young. So when Andersen shows up to audition for the Danish Royal Ballet at fourteen with no formal training, he was an oddity. Patron of the arts Jonas Collin took an interest in young Andersen. He wrote “A method for spreading knowledge among the peasantry” and proposed libraries for peasants and easy to read mini newspapers. He thought Andersen could be civilized. The storyline of Anderson’s life is told in part through actual letters written to lifelong friend Edvard Collins (Daniel Moody) son of Jonas Collins. All of the characters that schooled or who supported Andersen were cutouts with their names in banners around them. These included Lord Frederik Conrad Von Holstein a Danish officer, theatre director and member of the board of the Danish Royal Theater; Giuseppi Siboni, Italian singing teacher and chorus master at the Danish Royal Theater; and, Jonas Collins prominent civil servant. A spotlight focused on cutouts as a story or background information emerged about them. This was a flat presentation, one dimensional and interesting as the cutout figures themselves.
Other fairy tales woven into the play where not as compelling. Little evidence from Andersen’s life was brought in to support parallels in the works of “The Little Mermaid”, “The Snow Queen” and others.
At times puppeteers blocked our view of the marionettes. They also used their hands to manipulate the puppets rather than moving them with the strings. The puppet in the image of Andersen at one point goes to write in his journal and the puppet could not hold an ink pen so the puppeteer put the ink pen in his hand and held it, moving the puppet with his own hands. It was similar to an actor breaking character. In this case the audience is focused on the puppeteer instead of what the puppet was trying to convey. The puppets were cute and took bows at the end of the play. They injected some lightheartedness and child’s play in an otherwise serious and sometimes dark autobiographical characterization. It was whimsical to have Andersen himself portrayed in a puppet alongside some of his more prominent fairy tale characters.
Overall the story line is hard to follow as Andersen’s imagination and reality are blurred. In the play notes, Wolf comments on Andersen’s sexual identity and in the play highlights correspondence between Andersen and others where Andersen compliments men. Biographers have agreed that Andersen was not homosexual and was the recipient of unrequited love from both sexes. All of this speculation does not add to the play. It did not form the basis of any of Andersen’s fairy tales or otherwise impact his life and development.
The choice of accompanying music by 20th century composer Benjamin Britten held minimal if any correlation to Andersen. As a seeming link, Wolf points out in the play notes that Britten was gay with a lifelong partner.
The high note of the performance is countertenor Daniel Moody, who frequently sang at critical dramatic intervals in the performance. While is overall musical presence was commanding, his interpretations of Henry Purcell’s works were particularly impressive. Powerful diction, pathos, artistry, and beauty were presented.
These plays by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century are educational and I would encourage patronizing upcoming productions. Mixing literature, biography and music transforms a concert or play’s experience. According to its mission, the Ensemble sets out to achieve the impossible – time travel. Hans Christian Andersen needs to be revisited another time when more developed.
Hans Christian Andersen Tales Real & Imagined– Playwright, Founder of Ensemble for the Romantic Century, Executive Artistic Director, Eve Wolf.
WITH:Jimmy Ray Bennett (Hans Christian Andersen), Daniel Moody/Randall Scotting (Edvard, countertenor), Craig Marin (puppeteer), Olga Felgemacher (puppeteer), Carlos Avila (piano), Max Barros (piano), and Shiqi Zhong (percussion).
Directed by and director of theatrical productions Donald T. Sanders; co-artistic director, Max Barros; musicologist, James Melo; scenic & costume design by Vanessa James; lighting design by Beverly Edmonds and Sebastian Adamo; puppetry design by Flexitoon, Ltd.; sound design by Bill Toles; casting by Geoff Josselson, CSA; general press representatives David Gersten and associates; advertising and marketing DR Advertising; production coordinator, Jeremy Scott Blaustein; general management, Aaron Grant Theatrical; production manager, Red Bird Entertainment; company manager, Matthew McVey-Lee; production stage manager, Miriam Hyfler; assistant stage manager,Melissa Erickson; company manager, Austin Tracy. Tickets for Hans Christian Andersen Tales Real & Imagined, which are now on sale, are $39 to $149 and can be purchased online at Dukeon42.org; by phone at 646-223-3010; or in person at The Duke on 42nd Street at 229 West 42nd Street (Tuesdays-Fridays 4-7 and Saturdays 12-6). Beginning performances April 13th. Opening Night is set for May 5th. This limited Off-Broadway engagement runs through May 25th only. At The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues second floor). For more information, visit romanticcentury.org. Running Time: 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission.