KPBS AIRDATE: December 29, 2006
Once upon a time, there was a very homely, lonely boy, ridiculed by his classmates, ostracized by his peers. But he turned his ghastly childhood experiences into gold. He grew up to create some of the most enduring fairy tales ever written. Most of them concerns outsiders and outcasts, some of whom triumph over adversity, many who don’t. Hans Christian Andersen was The Ugly Duckling, but though he became the most famous writer in mid-19th century Europe, he never turned into a swan. He remained an awkward, gawky man, who never had a romantic relationship. But he lovingly offered his explosive imagination to the hearts and minds of millions, even if his fantastical stories were almost always tinged with loss and death.
And so it is with “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” which was adapted by British playwright-turned-screenwriter Karina Wilson. Her version, “The Tin Soldier,” which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1998, loses some of the edge of the original. First of all, this tin-spoon soldier is missing an arm, not a leg. It’s a far greater challenge to remain steadfast – or even vertical – with only one leg. In the play, he does everything for his love of the Paper Doll. In the story, his motives are more military. His onstage adversaries – a pair of mischievous mice and a fearsome sewer rat – are joined by a philosophy-spouting spider. All ultimately come to his rescue, which doesn’t happen in the fairy tale. The nefarious goblin is the jealous, scheming cause of all his tribulations, though that’s far less clear in the original. But the Tin Soldier still comes to an unfortunate end, so the tale isn’t totally Disneyfied, as was ‘The Little Mermaid.’
Still, this isn’t a wholly satisfying production, at least not for adults. Joe Powers, director of North Coast Rep’s Theatre School, intended this as a mainstage production. But the acting style he’s encouraged is decidedly kiddie-oriented. There are some pleasures to be had: San Diego newcomer Joshua Zar makes for a credibly resolute Tin Soldier – but he shouldn’t be asked to sing; Gabriella Battista and James Patterson are cute as the harebrained, impish mice; and Mark Christopher Lawrence is a nasty rat — with a heart. The mega-talent of Robert Grossman, a frequent visitor to North Coast Rep, seems wasted here in the minor role of the affable, guitar-playing Narrator. There just doesn’t seem to be a strong sense of ensemble cohesion to the production, which is modestly designed and attractively costumed.
Hans Christian Andersen tales have darkness and depth that isn’t sufficiently mined. The best of theater, for children or adults, gets under the skin of the characters, beneath the surface of the story. Here, we just get the fairy tale, but that’s plenty for some young theatergoers.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.