The Steadfast Tin Soldier
At the Lookingglass Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Certain adjectives come to mind in describing Mary Zimmerman’s one-hour theatrical “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” at the Lookingglass Theatre. One is “charming,” others are “creative,” “imaginative,” and sometimes “magical.” For audiences who are comfortable only with literal theater, the show can be “slow” and “meandering,” but this being a Mary Zimmerman conceived production, the positive adjectives win out.
Zimmerman has adapted the show from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The show outwardly is shaped for children, but adults will be just fine with it, especially adults who don’t insist on a clear storyline. This show entertains from moment to moment and scene to scene. If they connect into a meaningful whole plot, I missed it. But there is an ample supply of color and whimsy and humor that will keep the eye engaged, if not the mind.
The cast consists of a sourpuss nursemaid (Christopher Donahue), a ballerina (Kasey Foster), a man-sized rat (John Gregorio), a goblin (Anthony Irons), and the title character, a toy soldier in full red uniform (Alex Stein). They perform in various combinations on the intimate stage of what looks like an antique theater. A four-piece orchestra plays from a pit in front of the stage, wigged and costumed in baroque style like personages from a Mozart opera.
There is no spoken dialogue in the show, until the final moments when the ensemble lines up to serenade the audience with a farewell song. Until that musical moment, the only language on offer is a string of words written on what looked like large white handkerchiefs, and a row of enlarged children’s building blocks that spell out various words as they are turned on their sides. As a result the performance often assumes the character of an old silent motion picture comedy or a mime show. At times, a couple of musicians from the chamber orchestra will climb out of their pit and onto the stage to enhance the goings-on with flute and violin accompaniment.
In spite of the absence of a coherent storyline, I thought the entire hour was continuously engrossing, the actors and props and lighting and colorful backdrops always fun or interesting to look at. And the five performers extract a bountiful amount of expressive feeling from their wordless time on stage. The nursemaid is fearsome, the goblin mischievous, and the tin soldier stalwart if sometimes confused—all without uttering a word. The ballerina doesn’t need language to show us her grace and beautiful.
At a precise 60 minutes, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is just the right length. Add another 30 minutes and the whimsy can turn tiresome and boring. At that, the brief scenes flow by with a spontaneous, what-next feel not every viewer will respond to.
The five actors are all outstanding, but they get plenty of assistance from the designer brain trust consisting of Todd Rosenthal (scenic design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), TJ Gerckens (lighting design), and Andrew Pluess and Christopher LaPorte (sound design and original music).
This being a Lookingglass-Zimmerman collaboration, we can expect there to be puppets. The show opens on a visually startling note with the inflated giant head and hands of a child floating above the stage as manipulated by handlers with sticks. That striking beginning immediately establishes that we are in for an hour of fantasy of a high order. The child puppet returns later in the show as a life sized doll maneuvered with enough detail and precision to make the little boy seem a living lad in his nursery. The estimable Blair Thomas along with Tom Lee designed the puppets. The choreographer is Tracy Walsh and the circus choreography was designed by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi. Both are frequent contributors to the Lookingglass brand and they do the production a great service with their mini dances.
The four musicians are a further ornament to the production, giving the little orchestra a gravitas that meshes well with the general lights of the activity on stage. The musicians are Leandro Lopez Varady (piano), Greg Hirte (violin), Michal Palzewicz (cello), and Constance Volk (woodwinds).
“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” could have used a little more straight narrative, but I didn’t hear any restless fussing from the numerous children in the audience, whose imaginations must have been engaged throughout by the fantasy land happenings on stage. An hour inside Mary Zimmerman’s creative head will enrapture audiences of all ages.
The show gets a rating of
“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” runs through January 13 at the Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 821 North Michigan Avenue. Most performances are Tuesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $85. Call 312 337 0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com November 2018
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