Sunday, May 5, 2019

4 (2018-2019): Review: HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN: TALES REAL AND IMAGINED (seen April 28, 2019)

“Calling Danny Kaye!”


Like his British contemporary, Charles Dickens, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s oeuvre of fiction, much of it in the fairytale genre, remains part and parcel of the modern world, even to the point of being reimagined in numerous literary, film, and theatre pieces, including Broadway musicals. 
Jimmy Ray Bennett. Photo: Shirin Tinati. 
His contributions to children’s literature have made him the beloved subject of famous sculptures, one right here in New York’s Central Park, another in Copenhagen, where the equally, if not more familiar statue of one of his most favorite characters, “The Little Mermaid” also resides. Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real and Imagined, Eve Wolf’s new Off-Broadway show about his life, particularly the darker parts, however, does next to nothing to further burnish his memory.
Jimmy Ray Bennett. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Television often broadcasts reruns of the 1952 Hollywood musical, Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. For all its musical charms (with a hit list of long-lasting songs, like “Thumbelina,” “The Inch Worm,” and “Anywhere I Wander”), it’s actually a fictional story, not a biographical account.

The adorable version of Andersen in that film is nothing like the ugly duckling revealed in Eve Wolf's new play with music, Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real and Imagined. It presents him as a writer, born into poverty in 1805, who became a literary swan befriended by some of the most significant personages of his time. Yet he endured much unhappiness, never marrying, perhaps never losing his virginity, because of his repressed homosexuality.

This is Wolf’s latest work for the Ensemble for a Romantic Century, a company devoted to finding appropriate visual and musical elements with which to express the lives of famous but troubled writers, musicians, and visual artists. The scripts, like this one, are usually stitched together from letters, memoirs, diaries, and other contemporary documents, and accompanied by chamber music played and sung by virtuoso artists.
Jimmy Ray Bennett. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
All of the previous Wolf plays for ERC I’ve seen, which were about Vincent Van Gogh, Arturo Toscanini, Emily Dickinson, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, were directed by Donald T. Sanders and designed by Vanessa James. None excited me in theatrical terms but aficionados (which I am not) of classical music have appreciated at least their orchestral components.
Carlos Avila, Max Barros. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
I presume lovers of such music will feel similarly about the considerable infusions here of anachronistic contributions by Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Henry Purcell, Arvo Pärt, and Samuel Barber; music of Anderson's own era is notably absent. The selections receive the impassioned performances of two pianists, Carlos Wila and Max Barros, a percussionist, Shiqi Zhong, and countertenor Daniel Moody (who alternates with Randall Scotting). However, those without an ear for these complex, difficult, melodically unfamiliar pieces may be less than satisfied, especially as the dramatic sections they accompany are so seriously lacking in anything comparable, either on the level of acting, writing, or staging.

Andersen’s life is presented via narrative sections in which the actor playing him, Jimmy Ray Bennett, whose sweet face in no way corresponds to Anderson’s decidedly odd (may I say ugly?) one, shifts voices to indicate multiple characters, using an American accent for Andersen, and both British and Continental European ones for the others. He tries hard but Laurence Olivier himself would struggle with this dramatically inert material. And Bennett is no Olivier.
Jimmy Ray Bennett. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Moody, when he’s not singing in his falsetto voice, speaks in a British accent, using a normal register, to occasionally play Andersen’s wealthy friend, Edvard, to whom Hans (a name Edvard refrained from saying) often turned in times of need, and with whom he appears to have been in love.

Scenes between two people talking directly to each other are rare; the narrative sections, which include the inane back and forth dialogues Bennett is forced to speak, are delivered mostly while vaguely looking toward the audience. And even when discourse is being conducted between Andersen and Edvard, they don’t look at each other, their words originating not in conversation but, apparently, correspondence.
Photo: Shirin Tinati.
The frequent appearance of puppets, voiced by their creators and manipulators, Craig Marin and Olga Felgemacher, or by Bennett, offers no surcease to the boring biography or its plodding presentation. A main component of Vanessa James’s set, in fact, resembles a puppet theatre, with cutouts of young kids watching at each downstage corner of its curtained, artificial, proscenium arch. (Cutout figures of adults also populate the stage. Perhaps this explains the stiff performance of the actors.) This theatre unit, to one side of which is a bed of many mattresses (think The Princess and the Pea), and James’s 19th-century costumes, offers what little visual charm the production possesses.
Craig Marin. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
A variety of puppets, including socks, Muppets, string marionettes, bunraku-influenced dolls (albeit for a single operator), and so on appear. A small Pierrot marionette often dangles at Andersen’s side as a sort of childlike avatar. In this day of advanced puppetry, though, with so many remarkable artists doing magical, sophisticated work, those on view here are old-fashioned throwbacks, unfunny, and dull.
Jimmy Ray Bennett, Randall Scotting. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
The puppets sometimes participate, usually wordlessly, in the enactment of Andersen’s more famous stories, The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, but they’re never more than clumsy, and what they do is usually too imprecise to appreciate; kids brought by their parents because of the puppets are likely to be both bewildered and disappointed.

And those who don’t know the references will be lost, as the play makes no attempt to introduce them. Even when no puppet is involved, the performance can be confusing. I can’t imagine what someone who’s never heard of The Little Match Girl might think on seeing Andersen transition from one scene to another by wrapping himself in a blanket, and doing an awful pantomime of a little girl trying to light matches to keep warm before falling victim to the cold. You may not even know he’s supposed to be a child, much less the one in Andersen's tale.
Randall Scotting,. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
There’s little to commend in this misguided production, which has not the slightest iota of dramatic interest or conflict. That feeling apparently was shared by perhaps one-third of the audience, which, at the preview I saw, took its leave between the two acts of the play's egregiously extended two-hours. During the intermission, a lady who was squeezing past me with her friend on the way to the exit, shyly said to me: “We didn’t understand what was going on.” (I advise theatregoers to read the program notes, which are superior to the play, beforehand, for a modicum of help.)
Jimmy Ray Bennett. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Duty requires I note the small band of enthusiasts who whooped and clapped lengthily during the curtain calls. Their pleasure at Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real and Imagined may have been real but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what they liked that I didn’t. It’s the kind of dilemma, in fact, at which Andersen, who wrote The Emperor’s New Clothes, might have had a go.

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