The following is a theater review by KERA’s critic at large, Jerome Weeks. It airs December 20 on KERA’s Morning Edition.
The Undermain Theatre has long been expert at presenting dark, ironic works, their basement space becoming a troll’s cave where the theater takes full advantage of the dank atmosphere and the ghostly lights.
But every so often, the Undermain also presents something truly lovely — something still strange yet so enchanting it floats free of its surroundings and enters a realm of light. Right now, that lovely something is Lynne Alvarez’ play The Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen is based on the classic Hans Christian Anderson story. Written by him expressly with children in mind, Anderson’s fairy tales are often quaint and delicate and designed as pat moral lessons. But almost as if Anderson’s unconscious couldn’t help it, some of his tales can also be troubling.
Ms. Alvarez, an accomplished New York playwright who has been living in Dallas for several years, has kept the bare bones of Anderson’s tale. Two Danish children are separated when a visiting Snow Queen takes the young boy away to her palace in the north. So the girl sets out to find her young friend.
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To this, Ms. Alvarez has added sex and 19th century Scandinavian theater. Hers is a story about love and devotion, the sexual roles we play and the damage they inflict. The children are now young adults, and the young man, named Christian, becomes infatuated by Nina, an older woman, a stage star who takes a new lover each winter. Hans Christian Anderson’s sweet little children have wandered into one of August Strindberg’s bitter plays. Predatory women were an obsession of Strindberg’s, and Ms. Alvarez underlines the connection by having her Snow Queen rehearse a scene from Miss Julie, Strindberg’s famous battle of the sexes.
The poor young woman, Annaliese, is left to trek after Christian, and in an interesting change, Ms. Alvarez has done away with all of Anderson’s talking animals. Instead, Annaliese encounters a small, cultish colony of people who want to live like Vikings, but spend their time taking opium. Would-be Vikings on opium — that’s how dreamlike this Snow Queen gets.
Under Katherine Owens’ inspired direction, The Snow Queen has been given an elegant, simple-seeming production with exquisite costumes by Giva Taylor. Most especially, The Snow Queen resembles a children’s storybook, thanks to designer Linda Noland who has draped the set with paper screen cut-outs, large-scale silhouettes of ocean waves. These are augmented by Eugenia Stallings’ cardboard puppets and origami birds. The entire staging has a delicate, fluttery magic to it.
The performances at the Undermain, unfortunately, lack the same unity. On the one hand, we have wonderfully natural, detailed characters — with Christian Taylor as the coltish, earnest young man and Matt Posey as a rakish older paramour. On the other, there are unreal, symbolic creatures, like Rhonda Boutte’s robber maiden. Some are comic relief, some just seem cartoonish.
But it’s the central performance of Shannon Kearns-Simmons as the Snow Queen that just misses. Ms. Kearns-Simmons has a lovely singing voice, but she plays Nina as a grande dame, affected and imperious. In this wintry, European setting, a cooler, more worldly woman would seem fitting. The play’s not called The Hot-Tempered Diva, after all. Think of the shimmering aloofness of a Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich.
Now — they were Snow Queens.