BWW Review: TALES REAL & IMAGINED is an Imaginative Look at the Life of HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSON
The Little Mermaid. Thumbalina. The Ugly Duckling. The Princess and the Pea. The Little Match Girl. It's hard to overestimate just how much the prolific writer Hans Christian Anderson contributed to our childhoods and to our current pop culture. The Ensemble for the Romantic Century's HANS Christian Anderson: TALES REAL & IMAGINED takes a close look into the author of many of our most beloved tales and how his tragic life inspired his stories.
The show functions as a sort of memory play as Hans Christian Anderson (Jimmy Ray Bennett, who opens the show clad in angel wings) looks back over the course of his life and his struggles with identity - both related to class and to love and sexuality. In the first half of the nineteenth century, being queer was not something to be open about or even articulated. However, Anderson's tumultuous and rather one-sided relationship with his mentor's son Edvard is at the heart of the show.
The play, penned by Eve Wolf (the Executive Artistic Director of Ensemble for the Romantic Century), clearly positions Anderson himself as "The Ugly Duckling." He is mocked at school for his looks, his effeminate personality, and his lower-class background. He is rejected by romantic partners of both sexes and struggles to come to terms with the women in his family turning to begging and prostitution. Even his later success abroad and stardom cannot clear his soul of these trials.
The show is largely a one-hander for Jimmy Ray Bennett, who only has a slew of puppets and a handful of other actors to interact with. He carries the show beautifully and his inherent likability keeps Anderson from seeming mopey or self-centered. He has a lovely voice and brought a real ethos to the role, making it difficult for the audience not to feel for him.
The show is also accompanied by gorgeous classical music by the pianists, percussionists, and countertenor. Eve Wolf decided to use music, mostly by Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten, to illuminate the life of Anderson. Max Barros and Carlos Avila are a delight to watch on the pianos, while Daniel Moody and Randall Scotting split the role of the Countertenor and Edvard. Moody has a lovely voice, even if the songs did sometimes feel a bit disjointed from the rest of the show.
The rest of the characters are played by puppets, designed by Flexitoon and handled by Craig Marin and Olga Felgemacher. They utilized a wide variety of puppetry styles, but the marionettes were especially charming to watch. These puppets, combined with large cutouts of illustrated people voiced by Bennett, creatively take the place of a human ensemble.
Designing a creative set for a blackbox theatre can sometimes be tricky, but Vanessa James's set is delightful. It consists of many pieces, from a desk for Anderson to a large "Princess and the Pea" style bed with many mattresses. The pièce de résistance is a large old fashioned theatre, which almost seems reminiscent to a "Punch and Judy" theatre. It gave a whimsical and antique feel to the whole play.
The show is not without its faults, including a two hour run time that feels like it could easily be ninety minutes instead. Sometimes the narrative seems to get lost and it's a bit unclear who the target audience is as it's certainly not one that would hold children's attention. It is perhaps too whimsical for some people's tastes and doesn't delve as deeply into some of Anderson's issues as I would have liked. But Bennett is compelling enough to make up for much of this and it's clearly a labor of love for Hans Christian Anderson on Eve Wolf's part.
Director Donald T Sanders has done a lovely job with the world premiere of this new music-ladden play. TALES REAL & IMAGINED will appeal to anyone interested in learning about a man whose name is as well-known as his life story is forgotten.