The Ensemble for the Romantic Century puts together hybrids of theater, classical music—both vocal and instrumental—and readings of letters or diaries to create its productions. For Hans Christian Andersen, its latest offering, the group has increased the hybrid entertainment by adding puppetry for its story of the life of the great Danish fairy-tale writer: marionettes, hand puppets, and some that are much larger.
Subtitled Tales Real and Imagined, the show, directed by Donald T. Sanders, opens with Hans in heaven, sitting high up at one side of Vanessa James’s compact yet fluid set. Removing his angel’s wings and descending, he begins to tell the story of “The Princess and the Pea,” and then to tell his own story, but as a fairy tale. The son of an impoverished, alcoholic mother, Andersen tried out for the Royal Ballet at Copenhagen but failed because of his gangly frame and, Wolf suggests, his social class. Luckily he was taken up by the choir and soon found a benefactor, who sent him to a Latin school at 17. He had wanted to write poetry, but his cruel headmaster, Simon von Meisling, made it difficult: “You dare to write your own things? I forbid it!”
The blond, bright-eyed Jimmy Ray Bennett plays Andersen, sometimes speaking or reciting directly to the audience, at other times playing both characters in two-person scenes. Bennett captures Andersen’s frustration in his early years, yet balances it with irrepressible optimism helped by a megawatt smile: “My life is a lovely story, happy and full of incident. The history of my life will say to the world what it says to me—there is a loving God, who directs all things for the best.”
The reality was more Dickensian, with a desolate social life in the boondocks of Denmark, and separation from his mother and beloved sister. He falls for his benefactor’s son, Edvard Collin (Randall Scotting at the performance I saw; he alternates with Daniel Moody). As Edvard becomes a wealthy patron of the arts, he helps young Andersen. Still, the writer was over 40 before he found success.
Andersen’s letters to Edvard leave almost no doubt that he held an unrequited love for Edvard; the latter’s responses show that he understood, but wanted no part of it. Indeed, one exchange shows him as a particularly cold fish: he insisted on always using formal pronouns when they spoke or wrote, rather than the more intimate pronouns (the difference exists in English, in the distinction between the archaic “thou” and “you”). The response was personally hurtful, but Wolf deftly links the situation to another famous fairy tale, “The Ugly Duckling”:
“Poor ugly creature, how gladly he would have lived even with the ducks had they only given him encouragement. The winter grew colder and colder; he was obliged to swim about on the water to keep it from freezing, but every night the space on which he swam became smaller and smaller. At length it froze so hard that the ice in the water crackled as he moved, and the duckling had to paddle with his legs as well as he could, to keep the space from closing up. He became exhausted at last, and lay still and helpless, frozen fast in the ice.”
The life story alternates between the letters, music, and realistic encounters—Scotting, a sturdy countertenor, makes a persuasive object of Andersen’s affection, and he speaks occasional dialogue (as does Olga Felgemacher, a puppeteer who plays Andersen’s mother). Scotting’s main duties, however, are to vocalize, accompanied by two pianos (played by Carlos Avila and Max Barros) and a percussionist, sometimes on xylophone (Shiqi Zhong). The selections of more than a dozen pieces are heavy on Henry Purcell (Overture from The Fairy Queen, “What Power Art Though?” from King Arthur) and Benjamin Britten (“I Know a Bank Where the Wild Thyme Grows,” Variations for Piano, and “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes).
The “imagined” part of the subtitle arrives in the form of puppetry (by Flexitoon, Ltd.). There are puppet mermaids, monsters, elves and even people: a puppet of his mother appears alongside Felgemacher, in identical clothing. Still, despite its subject, the production isn’t pitched toward children, nor is it a traditional musical. Andersen’s story is one of literary triumph and financial success from it, but at the cost of personal happiness. (There’s a particularly sad grace note at the end.) Its sensibility is that of a high-tone concert, done with superb musicianship, but its unexpected blend of elements defies pigeonholing.
Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s Hans Christian Andersen runs through May 25 at the Duke (229 West 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (with some exceptions). For tickets and more information, call (646) 223-3010 or visit romanticcentury.org.