Review: THUMBELINA at Imagination Stage

By: Feb. 19, 2020
Review: THUMBELINA at Imagination Stage
L-R Melissa Carter and Unissa Cruse in Imagination Stage's production of Thumbelina.
Photo by Margot Schulman.
We may live in a high-tech age, but little ones still love to draw and make stuff with paper, paste and crayons. And that low-tech delight is exactly what fuels Thumbelina at Imagination Stage, with its interweaving of hand and shadow puppets, paper cut-outs, hand-drawn animation and real actors.
Kids can see how it all gets done -- as if the wizard behind the curtain held an open house. They also get to see a very teeny-tiny person take charge of her life.
During a pretty fascinating, if longish, introductory stretch, cast members (and perhaps one or two crew?) sit at small tables on either side of the stage and start to tell the story with the help of a Narrator (Jonathan Atkinson). There, in full view of the audience, they operate paper puppets, or waft cut-outs of leaves or snow flakes in front of tiny video cameras on tripods. The cameras project all these bits and pieces onto screens at center stage. Chapter headings appear there, too.
It's an ingenious way to begin re-imagining Hans Christian Andersen's 1835 fairy tale. The whole stage, including those tables and tripods, is subtly bedecked in woodsy things -- vines, leaves, pale flowers, some of it in frames that recall old storybook illustrations. (The scenic design is by Nate Sinnott.) The Narrator even wears an amusing cutaway coat in a nod to Andersen's era. (The whimsical costumes are the work of Madison Booth.)
This mind behind this world premiere multi-media Thumbelina is Georgetown University Associate Professor of Theater and Performance, Natsu Onoda Power, who wrote, directed and illustrated the production. She has gifted DC area audiences for nearly a decade with eye-popping scenic designs, sometimes inspired by Japanese manga comics and anime (animation), as in Imagination Stage's terrific Anime Momotaro in 2013, or in Studio Theatre's Astro Boy and the God of Comics in 2012, which she both created and staged. More recently, Power won two Helen Hayes Awards for her 2018 adaptation and design of The Lathe of Heaven produced by Spooky Action Theater and Georgetown.
In Power's Thumbelina, the tiny title character (a sparkling Unissa Cruse) is still half the size of a human thumb, but she has a very big voice when she needs it and a mind of her own. As in Andersen's tale, she appears inside a flower -- a miracle child given by a woodland fairy to a childless old woman. But this Thumbelina grows up yearning to see the world and meet others like herself. She blows up at her kind adoptive mom in a rebellious outburst: "Everything you do is wrong and everything in this house is wrong...just too big!" The confrontation unfolds with Thumbelina's human-size mother projected hugely onto that large center screen, while Thumbelina is on the stage in front of it, looking tiny.
And just when you start to think the projections and puppetry coming from those side tables and cameras could begin to get old, the action bursts full-size onto the stage, though the puppetry and animation never go away.
Thumbelina runs off with the help of a swallow who flies her on his back. But she falls off and splashes into a pond, encountering a bespectacled toad as friendless as she. Thereafter she meets a buzzy bevy of maybugs, a generous field mouse and a self-important, rather nasty mole. Thumbelina's minuteness ensures that fate and nature will buffet her as in the old tale, towards her happy ending. But this time, with her giant voice and her confidence, the tiny girl takes a stronger hand in how it all unfolds. Oh, and the creatures in the old story who insist that Thumbelina must marry them make no such demands here.
Apart from Cruse in the title role, four actors (Atkinson, Melissa Carter, Ines Dominguez del Corral and Gary L. Perkins III) play all the other parts and do the puppetry and more. They seem to have a fine time making it all mesh. Even the sound design (by Justin Schmitz) has pizzazz. I could have sworn I heard a dash of bebop at one point.
Running Time; Just under 90 minutes, including an intermission.
Best for age 4 and older.
Thumbelina runs April 5 2020 at Imagination Stage which is located at 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda MD. For tickets, click here.
A world premiere written, directed and illustrated by Natsu Onoda Power, based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Scenic design by Nate Sinnott; costumes by Madison Booth; lighting by Sarah Tundermann; sound by Justin Schmitz; projections and animation design by Kelly Colburn.