Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875) fairy tales are embedded in our culture. Rife with disguised lessons, appreciated by children and adults alike, they continue to be manifest as ballets, plays, and films. We all have our favorites.
Raised in a poor family, the author had only basic education. At fourteen, he moved from a small town to Copenhagen in hopes of becoming an actor, instead achieving a modicum of success as a vocalist – until his voice changed. While sponsored for grammar school and subsequent travel, he wrote and occasionally published poetry, plays, short stories, then fairy tales. Success came late to the latter contribution, but it came. By the time he died of liver cancer at 67, Andersen was internationally revered.
As far as history is aware, though passionately pining after both women and men, Andersen remained celibate. We hear (his own) references to admired women in this well researched production, but it’s the author’s unrequited love for the heterosexual son of a patron that offers solid backbone to this version of his life.
Once again the ERC depicts its subject with imagination and style. The piece is full of classical music and song – by Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten, Arvo Part, Igor Stravinsky and Samuel Barber as played by the excellent Carlos Avila, Max Barros, and Shiqi Zhong. Aptly tenor vocals by Jimmy Ray Bennett (Andersen) and countertenor vocals by the superb Randall Scotting (Edvard), make music the pieces vertebrae. Dialogue is predominantly selected from personal writing and the author’s books.
The production opens with a poor woman out in the cold. Cupping her hands, we see a light within. The Little Match Girl? She climbs a tall ladder to the top of a stack of mattresses where a winged Hans Christian Andersen sits. Lily in his teeth, he then climbs down.
“The human soul is a spark from the eternal flame… Once upon a time…” Andersen tells the story of The Princess and the Pea. (Tested as to whether she’s a princess, the girl cannot sleep because a pea is hidden beneath 20 mattresses. ) A marionette is restless atop the pile.
This “fairy tale” of Andersen’s life is bookended by ingrained religion: “The story says there’s a loving God who directs all things for the best.” In fact, much suffering is shown. I can scarcely move or draw my breath, the countertenor sings. “There’s a dissonance inside me,” the hero muses. His alter ego is a clown marionette.
Puppets bring to life The Little Mermaid as well as mocking children and a parade of stuffed ducks from The Ugly Duckling. Both stories are here plausibly related to incidents in Andersen’s own life.
Portrayals of real people include Andersen’s mother (Olga Felgemacher), who died of poverty and drink even as her son rose in prominence, and unrequited love, Edvard Collins (Scotting, an able actor as well as vocalist) with whom he had a long correspondence despite the man’s disapproval and eventual marriage. A poignant conceit suggests that all Andersen asked of his friend (besides an eventual loan), was to be called by his first name, something propriety and therefore Edvard, disdained.
Several faceless, unidentified characters appear. These might be protagonists from Andersen’s stories, but are too obscure to identify – a washerwoman, a flower seller, a man in a newspaper admiral hat, a bum in a plaid shirt who’s begging? Also present, often for just a pass through, are a great many puppets that seem to have nothing to do with either this story or one of Andersen’s own works.
We hear about a stepsister in lengthy, confusing conversation with his (dead?) mother. The girl is looking for him. He doesn’t want to see her. Why? She too will die in poverty. Towards the end of the piece, the writer himself seems to be homeless and starving through an extremely long musical sequence. A dream?
I’m sure the erudite Eve Wolf and Director Donald T. Sanders had specifics in mind at every turn, but some of this piece is completely baffling. What works does so with sensitivity. Andersen’s circumstances and character are illuminated. Much onstage, however, is lost.
Jimmy Ray Bennett often addresses us directly, eschewing a fourth wall, engendering empathy. While at first the actor seems removed, he gradually warms as we do towards him. Steadfast love and the pain of an outsider are palpable. Success is buoyant.
Visuals include evocatively illustrated cut-outs of The Royal Danish Theater, the aforementioned mattresses, and various historical characters – one enormous representation of a British noble comically fills the stage-on-stage. These and splendid costumes are the inventive work of designer Vanessa James.
A wide variety of caricature puppets and classic marionettes are manipulated by Craig Martin and Olga Felgemacher. Some of the creatures are great fun. The little mermaid, alas, seems bug-eyed and satirized. Both puppeteers are seasoned, yet only marionettes show any movement finesse.
Musicianship is divine.
Photos by Shirin Tinati
Opening: Jimmy Ray Bennett (Hans Christian Andersen)
Ensemble for the Romantic Century presents
Hans Christian Andersen-Tales Real & Imagined
Written by Eve Wolf
Piano- Carlos Avila, Max Barros; Percussion-Shiqi Zhong
Directed by Donald T. Sanders
Through May 25, 2019
The Duke 229 West 42nd Street