By Carolyn Hayes Harmer
Winter doesn't officially begin until late December, but Michigan weather usually arrives early to that particular party. So the timing of the PuppetART original musical "Snow Queen" (script by Luda Mikheyenko, music and lyrics by Maria Mikheyenko, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen) is right in line with our fast-encroaching frigid wonderland. This ambitious adaptation is notable for blending the worlds of story and storyteller, allowing human characters to help their puppet counterparts surpass the conventional boxes and boundaries of the form.
At the play's inception, a lone gentleman (Nicholas Pobutsky), amid a gentle evening snowfall with no witness but a cawing crow, begins to muse about the sparkling crystals. Likening the falling snowflakes to bees, he wonders to himself if the flakes similarly have a queen.
From the man's contemplative reverie springs two pint-sized puppet playmates, Kai and Gerda, who frolic together and marvel that their roses have bloomed, even in the cold of winter. However, when Kai brashly dismisses and mocks the Snow Queen, the mythical monarch commandeers the story and abducts the child. Gerda is bereft, and the storyteller – feeling responsible for her anguish – helps her set out on a treacherous journey to rescue Kai, realizing both the pull and the power of friendship.
Irina Baranovskaya's design plays with proportion and scale, making the Snow Queen a shockingly imposing presence and also allowing for intriguing crossover between the puppet and human worlds. Crafted by Baranovskaya as well as Igor Kan, Irina Smirnova and Sandra Cardew, the puppets assume the style best suited to their purpose: Gerda, for example, a hand puppet in the story world, gains a larger, more expressive form when the storyteller becomes her companion.
Performers Jaclyn Strez, Dave Sanders, Connor Ghena and Sasha Vulovic take on the many supporting roles, sometimes visible as supplemental backdrops to the action, other times disappearing into fanciful hybrid scenic/puppet creations.
But the most consistent contribution comes from Pobutsky, who remains onstage as Gerda's near-constant escort; the tenderness and skill of his movements allow the viewer to fully suspend disbelief and witness their scenes as true interactions between independent characters. Between stops on the journey, Pobutsky also engages in interstitials with the crow, now a comically sentient marionette, who frankly states the lesson of each story in advance of its occurrence.
Although the production is gorgeously innovative, there seems to be a direct correlation between every visionary moment of amazement and the glacial lull that accompanies its laborious setup. The pacing is predetermined, set to follow an instrumental score with pre-recorded dialogue and songs (variably voiced by Maria Mikheyenko, Nicholas Pobutsky, Jaclyn Strez, Aaron Timlin and Christine Moore; recorded and edited by John Willems), and the live performers do their best to stretch and fill those moments of marking time.
However, credit goes to the PuppetART team – clearly attuned to young attention spans – for knowing just how long it can draw out a marvelous reveal while keeping even the smallest eyes affixed and wide with wonder. For while "Snow Queen" proudly shows its sophistication in terms of art and form, the show's strength of clarity and message and its power to amaze are what cement its appeal to the young viewers it most endeavors to charm.
at Detroit Puppet Theater
25 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit
10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 18, Jan. 15
2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, 27, Jan. 10, 17, 24, 31
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 28
1 hour; no intermission
Recommended for all ages
$10 adults, $5 children