Theatergoers bold enough to brave the icy weather and take the L train to Brooklyn's Williamsburg will understand that The Snow Hen has found the perfect location. Situated away from downtown Manhattan and even a few blocks distant from busy Bedford Avenue, the Charlie Pineapple Theater has an isolated air. This isn't where your life happens; this is somewhere else, somewhere remote. Based loosely on a Norwegian folk tale, The Snow Hen expands on the story of a girl living in solitude in a snow hut after being abandoned by her parents. She continually fishes odds and ends out of the snow, and after a few years she's grown a plume of white feathers on her back. After the audience has observed the heroine's fascinating and bizarre existence, a towering stranger dressed in a long leather coat arrives, perhaps the only other person left in the world.
Director Oliver Butler has homed in on the play's haunting melancholy, and all elements of the production—design, sound, lights, performance—blend seamlessly into a cohesive whole. Besides Butler, the Debate Society's creative triumvirate consists of Hannah Bos, who plays the girl, and Paul Thureen, the stranger. As both writers and performers, they bring humanity as well as pathos to this farfetched and fantastical landscape.
From the moment Bos first slips her hands through the curtain and "invites" us into her strange little world, we become a part of her existence. Such is the miracle of her spontaneity that for the first silent minutes of the piece, as she picks her way through a multitude of props, there is no evidence of rehearsal or blocking. Instead, there is simply an ease of being. Bos never seems to be "acting"; she simply is, and her bleak yet somehow bright existence inside her snow hut seems as familiar to the audience as any childhood memory. With its laughter and tears, this life is a warm center of emotion within a frozen world.
Thureen's first appearance is shocking. Appearing nearly 9 feet tall in relation to Bos, the stranger is a monster bringing chaos to her world. Thureen wordlessly dominates the stage as Bos desperately tries to continue her life as it was before he came. But as he begins to discard layers of fur and leather (expertly crafted by Sydney Maresca), we see the man within the monster. The stranger seems to be susceptible to the girl's influence, and her spunkiness begins to revitalize him as he thaws out from the cold. Eventually, we realize that he is just as alone—and as vulnerable and capable of wonder—as she is.
The scenic design is both wondrously inventive and effectively oppressive. The child's Fisher-Price scale vividly illustrates that the girl has outgrown her home. More impressively, nearly every piece of the set is functional. There is an extension cord on the wall, and if one of the actors plugs in a hair dryer, it works. The floor has an ice-fishing hole, and if the actors lift the lid, there is water and a fishing basket. The wealth of gadgets and trinkets allows the actors to make discoveries throughout the course of the play.
Mike Riggs's light design presents an effective interplay between realism and artifice. Inside the hut, the lights are powered by a generator and fade as scenes progress. Frequent patches of sunlight add a stark contrast to the normally frigid tones outside. A quick glimpse of the northern lights, breathtakingly rendered, creates a greenish, surreal effect.
Nathan Leigh's sound effects include voice-overs by Pamela Payton-Wright and Adam Silverman, which occur naturally and heighten the loneliness. Every element of the design seems to have a slight echo, like music heard ringing on for miles. Or maybe the music is miles away, and we hear only the echoes.
The Snow Hen offers unique joys as well as sadness. To classify the play as experimental theater probably does it a disservice. Though some of the concepts and the performance style might be appropriate for that genre, the piece's overriding message about the need for shared existence will be accessible to anyone who sees it. Audiences may depart the theater feeling as if they've left a part of themselves in this mysterious little pocket of reality. As if somewhere remote and cold, a piece of us is cataloguing trinkets and hearing the echoes of a life long gone.