Go Where There is Love
The Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s world premiere of Hans Christian Anderson’s Thumbelina opened last week, and it is a must-see. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a school show yesterday comprised of 1st-3rd graders, and could tell they were instantly enrapt with Eric Johnson’s inventive, technological treatment of Y York’s thoughtful and heartfelt script. HTY has been experimenting with digital effects for a few years now, but this show has got to be their crowning achievement. Kudos to the entire production team for an excellent season finale!
This original telling of the well-known fairytale follows the titular Thumbelina (Christina Uyeno), a thumb-sized human child magically born from a flower, as she adventures to get back home to her loving mother (Malie Holck), encountering strange barnyard creatures and new experiences along the way. Through the combination of technology, puppetry, playful acting, intelligent staging, and special design effects, the show captures all the wonder, exhilaration, and apprehension of a small child finding her way, and her strengths, in a big, unknown world. Think Alice in Wonderland if Wonderland was a plain, old backyard that you see everyday.
The regular human-sized world, and the world from the view of tiny Thumbelina, comes to exist in a quasi-virtual reality via two main playing spaces. First, there is a small puppeteering stage illuminated by lighting instruments occupying the open area in front of the first row, where a stationary digital camera videos various puppets and scenic cut-outs manipulated by the actors when they’re not in-scene. This live video feed is then projected onto stage proper, on a massive white backdrop, for the actors who are in-scene. And then through careful coordination between live actors, puppeteers, tech ops, and video manipulation, HTY is able to create a cinematic storybook come to life.
I don’t want to give away all the show’s tech secrets, but you’ll be amazed and delighted by how the company plays with scale and perspective, different environs within the fairytale, and what is physically real vs. digital illusion. The most intriguing aspect of all this, is that the production doesn’t try to hide the ‘man behind the curtain’ as he makes the gigantic, smoky image of the Great and Powerful Oz with levers and dials. A great deal of the magic-making happens simultaneously on the two stages for all to see. This creates an added dimension of wonder, because while you’re marveling at the illusion created, you’re also aware of all the different hands involved in contributing to the illusion, which increases your appreciation for their collaborative artistry.
Hats off to director Johnson for his tight, cohesive staging, and coordination between playing spaces and design elements. There was only one spot where there seemed to be a minor disconnect—in the video projection of the Fish (Junior Tesoro), the actor’s head was appropriately moving back in the water, while the Fish puppet (manipulated by Nathaniel Niemi) was stock still. Puppet and prop designers Lynn Jeffries and Chesley Cannon create a lovely, tangible picture book quality to the show, in concert with a quaint and fun costume design by Kathleen Doyle. One observation about the overall design, is that many of the puppet/prop/costume elements seemed based in reality (Goose puppet, Frog puppet, fur for Mouse costume, etc.), while the Fish puppet (and I really don’t mean to harp on the carp) looked more like a cardboard cutout. And then sound design and music composition by Paul James Prendergast filled the world with warm, sentimental melodies and amusing sound effects.
But the MVP award has to go to Cannon for set, lights, and video design. Never before have I seen such a triumph in Hawai‘i when it came to utilizing those tools to take a classic tale and make it so accessible and entertaining for today’s technically minded youth.
As for the emotional core and human heart to the production, again, the show wins big. Uyeno is flawless as the main character, with just the right mix of hope, love, innocence, and determination. Holck plays double duty as Mother and Butterfly, and makes you feel tenderness and concern for both characters but in different ways. Niemi’s work as the Goose puppet kicks off the show’s humor, while his Mouse beats a tail like no other, and also has a touching emotional shift with Thumbelina. Tesoro’s Fish (see I do like the fish) pleases with expressive antics and rhyme schemes, and Sean-Joseph Choo’s Beetle is just mean and nasty. Not sure who played the Frog, but that puppet plus the vocal work was perfectly scary.
It’s always a joy to see Y York’s work staged at HTY. Having been in her Nothing is the Same more than a decade ago, I know the heart and emotional depth in her writing. With this take on Anderson’s tale, you must “go where there is love.” There’s a lot of love and artistry in this technically impressive production from everyone involved, and it shows.