By Quinn Rigg
Leaves crunch and glasses fog up in the frozen air — winter fast approaches. With thanks given and stomachs filled, we celebrate so as to weather the weather to come. However, as lights glow and colors sparkle on every street corner, there’s a certain theatre cutting against the grain…
In a somber departure from its usual holiday traditions, The House Theatre experiments at the top of its season with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, adapted by Lanise Antoine Shelley. A synopsis of Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale may be found here.
Liberally interpreting the source material, The House’s The Snow Queen endeavors to tackle identity, climate change, social accountability, grief, retribution, mortality and more, all while deconstructing the concept of the fourth wall. However, with its scope spread so broadly across largely disparate themes, this adaptation often loses the blizzard through the snowflakes.
In a tight eighty-five minutes, The Snow Queen follows vulnerable and confused children on a vast journey after breaking a sacred mirror, facing their fears, their trauma, and an onslaught of ache from the greater world at large in an effort to fix the fractured artifact. With so much ground to cover and only so much time to travel, there is little time for unpacking any one concept this adaptation introduces to the source material. A snowball too loosely-packed is sure to fall apart before it gets rolling.
Director Amber Montgomery finds opportunity within the play’s ambitious scope, devising clever uses of spatial relationships to indicate not only location, but emotional states of being between characters. Using the sets verticality, and playfully setting certain entrances within the audience, Montgomery’s staging is engaging, innovative, and evocative. Montgomery also denotes clear theatrical language through which characters interact in their environment: those that exist within the supernatural break the fourth wall in order to commune with the audience — the watchers — while less ethereal parties exist only within the confines of the stage’s bounds. Her hand is subtle, but Montgomery makes the most of her space and of the rules set by The Snow Queen’s world.
Scenic and costume designer Sully Ratke contributes a capable hand to the magic of this spectacle. The varied and detailed terrain of a snowy mountain creates ample opportunity for sightlines and scale, while each intricate costume expresses aspects of identity within the weight of a chilly winter: bundled in such a cozy manner, one can’t help imagining frost on an actor’s breath. A multi-faceted professional with a masterful grasp of design, Ratke realizes the world of The Snow Queen in grounded clarity.
True to form for The House Theatre, resplendent spectacle creates a feast for the eyes. Masterfully crafted puppets designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock astound with their detail and their expressive articulation. Crafted from recycled materials, no less, Mooney-Bullock shapes life-like theatrical tools that are as sustainable as they are astonishing.
These wicker-woven stars of the production are puppeteered by the ever-endearing Thomas Tong as Harpier the Raven, and Roxy Adviento as a curious fox and adorable baby bear. Together, Tong and Adviento make emotional extensions of their inanimate others.
Magic consultant Dennis Watkins affirms the finesse and flair required to manifest the magic of the unseen onstage. From card tricks, to flowers in sudden bloom, to gravity-defying levitations, Watkins prepares an assortment of head-scratching delights for audiences to marvel.
A dauntless cast rounds out this terrific team of theatrical professionals. Vincent Williams beams with palpable charm and playful presence as Kai, as well as his other incidental roles throughout the play. Jackie Seijo shines brightly as an eager and troubled youth in the role of Quin. Molly Brennan is a highlight of every scene with her wry smile and knowing grin as Womoon and Grandmother.
The talent of all involved in the making of Shelley’s epic is undeniable. Well-cast and artfully designed, individual components of The House’s production sparkle and inspire; and yet, glittery tricks are not enough to mask the bloated book of this well-intentioned adventure. Provided extraneous topics are chipped away in future iterations to streamline the plot and subject matter, The Snow Queen could rival the gorgeous legend of its source material.
Out of the warmth of home, we breathe in the chilly air and wonder what might grow in the stead of falling leaves, and what we might nurture in ourselves in the absence of sun and summer. Upon viewing Lanise Antoine Shelley’s The Snow Queen, one wonders what might grow from the ambitious experiment of The House Theatre’s inaugural production out of lockdown.
The Snow Queen runs through January 2nd at The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St. For tickets or more information, please visit thehousetheatre.com.
Photos by Michael Brosilow.