Snowflakes spin and roses bloom as the Ragged Wing Ensemble presents Splinters … and Other F-Words, an ambitious if cluttered reintrepretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen.” Written and directed by ensemble member Andrea Hart, it’s a provocative show about anger and forgiveness using stylized movement, text, and song to tell the story of a young woman estranged from her father.
In Andersen’s 1845 original, a demon’s mirror breaks, scattering particles all over the world that make people see things as the exact opposite of what they are (the beautiful become ugly, and “landscapes look like boiled spinach”). Playmates Kai and Gerda are separated when bits of this mirror enter Kai’s eye and heart, opening him to seduction by the glittering Snow Queen. She whisks him away to her palace, and Gerda sets out in pursuit, prepared to make any sacrifice to rescue her friend.
In Splinters, we still have a Snow Queen (called “The Objective Observer” and played by Anna Shneiderman), and little Gerda still goes on her heroic journey. But we also have the story of a man who leaves his wife and children, and of the daughter who must find a way to make peace with him while juggling all the disappointments of coming to adulthood — being betrayed by friends, by lovers, by her own body. Andersen’s Gerda sets out to find her friend; Hart’s Woman sets out to find herself.
As a meditation on growing up without becoming bitter and twisted, Splinters is sometimes quite beautiful. As a production, it’s at least ten, maybe fifteen minutes too long. Built like the original, with seven chapters marking the stages of the protagonist’s journey, much of the Objective Observer’s narration is taken from Andersen. And what’s long in the original — mostly Gerda being held hostage by various people who want her as a daughter or a pet — still ends up long in the new form, even though the stories are different.
What works is the blending of the original story and modern urban life: single people debating what it’s fair to sacrifice for love, the smarmy host of the game show F-Words, a man preaching a doctrine of declining responsibility for one’s actions, people drinking to cover their unhappiness. Man, Woman, Singer, and the two members of the chorus desperately try to connect and fail, saying things like “Do I smell like a spinster? I mean, can you actually smell it?” and “I know how to make a can of tuna and three potatoes last a week” and the surprisingly poignant “I want pictures of you on my refrigerator.” The line “You look ugly when you cry,” taken straight from the Andersen story, takes on whole new meanings when it’s spoken among adult characters. Hart explores the gap between what we as children hoped for in our lives and what we have as adults. She also plays up the contrast between older notions of passion and self-sacrifice and the studied modern cynicism about love when a woman asks “I wonder if you’re worth going to the ends of the earth for.”
When everyone is onstage and moving, when the characters roll past each other, piling up words, Splinters has a lot of life. The fight scenes are great, and so are the Tyvek-clad teenaged members of the Snow Guard; one boy in particular does a very nice impersonation of a wizened crone. Although starting the play with the classic theater training game “Machine” does not inspire confidence, when the whole cast is in motion Splinters brims.
But when it becomes more naturalistic it snags, and some of the choices seem forced. A scene within a scene where the characters adopt broad “Joisey” accents, a last-minute revelation about the daughter that would have benefited from a little foreshadowing, the so-clichéd-it-hurts dialogue where the father leaves the mother (“I’ve met someone who understands me; I don’t love you, I never loved you”) that maybe is supposed to be understood as ritual, or maybe not — these could have stood some pruning.
Technically, the ensemble could commit themselves more. The video projections could go further or be cut altogether without anything being lost; the dance sequence that opens the fourth story is more than interesting enough without it.
Having the Snow Queen (excuse me, the Objective Observer) up on stilts is a cool choice. A cooler choice would have been to put her on drywall stilts, which don’t require the user to keep shifting her weight back and forth to stay aloft. The shifting (occasionally alleviated by the use of a long staff or a convenient teenager’s head) gets distracting, and there’s a fight scene where the fear that the Observer will fall overwhelms the illusion. The scene with a gospel choir would be more effective if the woman leading had a stronger voice, but while her tone is lovely her projection’s not there. However, the costuming and understated props — and especially the music — work well in the space.
The work has a lot of potential, and there are interesting lines and images. Some of the characters, such as the fifth chapter’s little robber girl and her bearded mama, are wonderful. “I always sleep with a knife,” harrumphs the robber girl, who rescues Gerda from death at the hands of the other robbers so that she’ll have a human pet to go with all the other animals she keeps in captivity.
Ragged Wing deserves credit for building something this complex for its second outing, which is more accessible than last year’s The Serpent. But unlike Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 38-year-old Serpent, the material hasn’t been polished over time, and Splinters needs a little more broken off to let the story shine more clearly.