Much of what people know about Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen isn’t in the story at all. Winter doesn’t overtake the land. There is no battle at the end in which an evil queen is vanquished. There certainly aren’t any talking snowmen. Like most fairy tales, The Snow Queen has evolved through retellings and retellings over the years. In the Arden Theatre’s version, which runs through January 26, playwright Charles Way and director Whit MacLaughlin manage to bridge the gap between what Andersen wrote and what the story has become, in a way that is accessible and meaningful.
“…When we are at the end of the story, we shall know more than we know now: but to begin…” These words are spoken by the Grandmother character, doubling as narrator at the beginning, played by Kala Moses Baxter. Those words also lead off the Andersen tale. And we learn about a magic mirror, designed to reflect the vain Snow Queen’s beauty with perfection as everything else around her was flawed. Right away, we depart from the original tale (yes, there was mirror, but its purpose was different). The mirror shattered into a million tiny pieces, and years later, pieces found their way into the eye and heart of young Cei (rhymes with “sky”) (Daniel Ison). Once a joyful, caring boy, he became cruel and harsh, especially to his oldest, dearest friend Gerda (Eunice Akinola). He is captured by the Snow Queen, who leads him away to her castle. Everyone in town believes him dead, but Gerda can feel that he is still alive.
The Snow Queen is, at its heart, a hero’s quest. The humble but clever Gerda goes on a mission, alone, to find and save her friend, but in the process she saves the entire land. She is taken by a woman who has cultivated flowers in a way that she controls them; she represents spring. After she escapes, she finds herself in the middle of a conflict between a prince and princess on the eve of their wedding; they represent summer. Finally, she is captured by a robber woman and her daughter; they represent autumn. At each stop, she learns more on the whereabouts of Cei and the Snow Queen, and each land is subsequently overtaken by the snow and cold.
Full disclosure: I myself adapted The Snow Queen for the stage, and my charge was stay faithful to the text. It was a challenge, though, because I found the original thematically lacking and anticlimactic. I won’t tell you what from the above paragraph is Andersen’s and what employs creative license, but I will say that Way and Whitman’s interpretation indeed improved upon what was a lackluster tale.
As part of the Arden Children’s Theatre Series, The Snow Queen offers a new experience to young audiences, expanding their expectations. The show is presented in the round, which meant that children learned to look sometimes behind them or above them to find the action. The floor of the set (designed by David P. Gordon) was reminiscent of a construction site; stone-gray with black and yellow striped lines at the entrances to the aisles. It almost looked like someone forgot to build the rest, but the space was eventually filled with props, including much snow. Aside from Katherine Fried’s elegant Snow Queen, the actors played multiple roles, including Alex Bechtel and Mary Fishburne providing the music, composed by Christopher Colucci. But children who might have only known proscenia (or movie screens) and big, lush set pieces were given an education. Thom Weaver’s inventive lighting design assisted by illuminating areas of the stage in anticipation of the action.
And the children got it. I enjoyed watching their reactions to the Snow Queen’s descent down different stairs, or to the falling beach balls, or to the actors showing up as different characters, or to the (much improved over the original) final battle. Based on their comments and questions at the end (which is my favorite part of the Arden’s children shows), they got it for sure, likely more than some of the adults. The Snow Queen is an imperfect tale, but in the Arden team’s hands, it’s a worthwhile new addition to its history of fantastic children’s theater.
For tickets and more information, visit: https://ardentheatre.org/event/the-snow-queen/2019-11-27/
Photos by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.