The fairy tales of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) have become an important sliver of Western culture, read by (or to) generations of children. If you’ve seen the musicals Once Upon a Mattress or The Little Mermaid, you’ve been exposed to his stories, if only indirectly. Some people will also remember the 1952 Danny Kaye movie, Hans Christian Andersen, which spun a fictional story out of Andersen’s life, complete with cute Frank Loesser songs.
Eve Wolf’s new play for the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, titled Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real & Imagined, suggests that the real-life Andersen might actually have appreciated whitewashed depictions of his life, maybe even the Kaye movie. The Andersen that Wolf gives us is an unattractive and unhappy misfit. We hear, though, more than once, his mantra of self-assuring optimism—which, it seems, fooled no one, including the storyteller himself:
“My life is a lovely story…happy and full of incident. My story will say to the world what it says to me—that there is a loving God, who directs all things for the best.”
Andersen (Jimmy Ray Bennett) has grown up in poverty. His mother was a washerwoman and perhaps a prostitute. Young Hans, however, has aspirations to work as a writer, specifically in the theater. He is given a few breaks along the way—including patronage by the influential Jonas Collin, who helps arrange for his advanced education. Still, he is ridiculed as an oaf and shunned by many in the Copenhagen literary elite. Eventually he finds fame and fortune from his fairy tale collections, but his sense of inferiority never leaves him entirely.
His romantic and sexual feelings, meanwhile, plague him. At one point in the play he more or less proposes marriage to a woman but is rebuffed. “I’m like a snowman who falls in love with a stove,” Andersen says despairingly, but with the same easily ignited imagination he brings to his stories. (Wolf doesn’t deal here with his infatuation with Jenny Lind, the inspiration for his story “The Nightingale.”)
The love of his life is a man: Jonas Collin’s son, Edvard. The feelings are not reciprocated, and–what’s more—Edvard doesn’t even honor Andersen’s simple request that he call him familiarly by his given name.
Edvard’s rejection deepens Hans’s feelings of social inadequacy. Hans dreams of becoming powerful enough to turn the tables and refuse to call the younger Collin by his given name. The role of Edvard is enacted by a character called The Countertenor; he’s played at some performances (including the one under review here) by Daniel Moody and at others by Randall Scotting.
The play, directed by Donald T. Sanders, is a nonrealistic and sometimes surreal pageant, relying as much on music and puppetry as on acting for its storytelling and ambience. Two grand pianos huddle together stage left, waiting to be played by Carlos Avila and Max Barros. Shiqi Zhong adds striking effects as percussionist. The music is mostly that of Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten—seemingly two very different sorts of composers, neither of them a contemporary of Andersen’s. The Purcell pieces seem to speak for cultural orthodoxy whereas the Britten ones reflect the churning psychological state of Andersen, who lives largely outside that orthodoxy. One selection each by Avro Pärt, Igor Stravinsky and Samuel Barber rounds out the show’s score.
The Countertenor sings repeatedly throughout the play. Moody’s powerful, high-pitched vocals seem appropriate to the story of Andersen, reflective of his nonconforming gender characteristics and his identification with children. Because the Countertenor so frequently plays the masculine Edvard, however, hearing him sing in this way seems a bit odd. Bennett as Hans also sings a number, Stravinsky’s “Love so frequently displayed.” His warm, virile vocals also seem out of character: they don’t express his character’s unease and purported effeminacy. Perhaps the character is projecting himself as the happy, blessed, easygoing fellow he aspires to be in his “lovely story.”
In any case, Bennett is an asset to the production. There’s something thorougly earnest and dignified that radiates from his performance. He is called on to take on other roles, too, from moment to moment, and does so admirably.
A large part of Wolf’s strategy involves presentation of Andersen stories—“The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” The Little Mermaid,” and “The Little Matchgirl”—as analogous to the inner conflicts that bedevil Andersen. This tack works especially well with “The Ugly Duckling.” At certain points Bennett wears dowdy duckling wings and at other points sports the white, angelic wings of a swan. Then, when Hans finds career success, there are moments when he fairly glides. With “The Little Mermaid,” though, Wolf’s analogy is harder to follow. Maybe it’s because so much of that tale is told wordlessly through the puppetry.
All sorts of puppets (from Flexitoon, Ltd.) participate in the storytelling: hand puppets, marionettes, and human-sized figures that take a whole person to operate. At one point, arms reach through a cut-out image of a woman to flutter a fan and wave a handkerchief. The puppeteers, Olga Felgemacher and Craig Marin, play an array of characters throughout.
Vanessa James’s costumes and scenery have a storybook quality, especially the outsized puppet theater centered on the actual stage. Unlike Wolf’s recent play about Arturo Toscanini, there’s not any real projected imagery in this show. Lighting designers Beverly Emmons and Sebastian Adamo do, however, create a snowfall effect toward the end, and they play ceaselessly with swaths of shadow and spots of brightness: just the stuff of fairy tales.
Hans Christian Andersen is probably not for everyone. One might wonder whether the few children in the audience at the performance under review were bored or enthralled. Maybe a little of both. Again, you may not be able to describe the significance of everything you’re shown here. However, many of the moments that the playmakers present will leave a strong impression. Because of the production’s dreamlike quality, you may—as you would at a ballet—do just fine by witnessing what unfolds and letting the music and imagery wash over you, working on your subconscious.
Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real & Imagined (through May 25, 2019)
Ensemble for the Romantic Century
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan.
For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.dukeon42.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission