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Theatre in Review: Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real & Imagined/The Bigot

Top: Jimmy Ray Bennett, Olga Felgemacher. Photo: Shirin Tinati. Bottom: Stephen Payne, Jaymi Paige. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Our theme today is misfits -- and what a pair these two plays offer up. Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real and Imagined is the product of Ensemble for the Romantic Century, a company that creates potted biographies of famous artists, combining rudimentary dramaturgy with generous servings of live classical music. The company is an acquired taste: If you are hankering for drama, keep moving because there's nothing to see here.

The actor Jimmy Ray Bennett is the title character, an awkward youth who cannot make it through school, struggling to have his writing appreciated, and haunted by his family's scandalous heritage, which includes a half-sister who works as a prostitute. (As Eve Wolf's script makes plain as day, the story of the Ugly Duckling didn't come out of thin air.) Even after his stories earn acclaim -- leading to literary celebrity and relationships with Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria -- Andersen remains a desperately lonely soul, devoted beyond all reason to Edvard Collin, son of the director of the Royal Danish Theatre. (Edvard's father, Jonas, had previously underwritten Andersen's education after his early attempts at a stage career proved fruitless.) This situation is exceptionally dreary, with Andersen penning one needy letter after another to a so-called friend who cannot even bring himself to put them on a first-name basis. Indeed, Edvard is so obviously a pill it is never clear exactly what Andersen sees in him.

The scenes of Andersen interacting, usually unsatisfactorily, with the people in his life are spelled out by puppet sequences, including a lengthy mimed account of The Little Mermaid, here posited as an allegory of his frustrated love for Edvard, and The Little Match Girl, also rendered in mime, a veiled allusion to the sister he could barely bring himself to acknowledge. Edvard is played by one of two countertenors -- at the performance I attended, it was Daniel Moody -- who interrupts the action (such as it is) with song. The entire musical program, which also features two pianos (played, beautifully, by Carlos Avila and Max Barros) and a percussion section (overseen by Shiqi Zhong), includes selections from Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Arvo Pärt, Henry Purcell, and Igor Stravinsky. These are often lovely -- Moody sings his selections with sensitivity and brio -- but their connection to the play is as tenuous as the numbers in any jukebox musical.

The main problem dogging Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real and Imagined is inertia. The central situation is both mawkish and dragged down by repetition. One can only endure the title character's yearning and bitterness for so long before experiencing an overwhelming impulse to yell, "Snap out of it!" The explicit linkage of the fairy tales to Andersen's unhappy psyche has the unintended effect of making them seem rather dreary, almost like case studies, and every time something threatens to happen, the action grinds to a halt for a musical selection. The director, Donald T. Sanders, allows the pace to dawdle, further sapping the enterprise of needed energy. If one attends Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real and Imagined expecting a concert with extensive programmatic content, it may be possible to enjoy the production. Other compensations include the charming pasteboard proscenium theatre with cut-out characters created by the set designer, Vanessa James, who also provided the period-accurate costumes. The lighting, by Beverly Emmons and Sebastian Adamo, is fine enough. But, to my mind, this is such a stolid entertainment that, in comparison, it makes a wax museum seem like a clinic for the hyperactive. Ensemble for the Romantic Century is the only company practicing its self-named genre of theatrical concerts; I think there's a reason for that.

At least Hans Christian Andersen believed in love and art. Jim, the title character of The Bigot, is the kind of person you cross the street to avoid. A bitter old codger suffering from kidney disease, he might be a figure of sympathy until he opens his mouth. Of course, he hates blacks. He also dismisses Maria, his last caretaker, saying, "She was too loud with her damn cucaracha music blasting away in the kitchen." When it is pointed out that he means mariachi music, he adds, "I have a suspicion that her family was somehow connected to the JFK assassination." He also notes, "Muslims are great! Until they blow you up." Of the lesbians next door, he uses terms that I haven't heard since 1977; he adds that they probably carry diseases, too. And his idea of political commentary is to grouse, "Before you know it, we'll have a fag government; the next president may be a fag."

The other characters adopt varying strategies for dealing with this charmer. Seth, Jim's put-upon son, a history professor, offers to be tested to see if his kidney is a match -- if Jim promises to read a book titled Hundreds of Years of African-American and Minority Struggle. (This only leads to a discussion of whether Martin Luther King was a plagiarist. "He just wanted to be famous," Jim insists.) Aysha, one of the neighboring lesbians, gives Jim an extra-wide berth, but Paula, her partner, decides that it is her mission to love him out of his ugly ways. They end up bonding, more or less, over -- of all things -- stamp collecting, which cues the details of Paula's grandfather, a Polish military figure and a hero of the Holocaust.

This is bad sitcom stuff, filled with flat gag lines, scenes in which near-strangers tell everything about themselves, and intractable problems that are solved after a single angry discussion or the offer of a spare organ. It doesn't help that Jim is little more than a collection of hate speech tropes; the tiny bit of information that we get about him is far too little, too late. Indeed, The Bigot is most notable for one of the most brazen examples of product placement I've yet seen. Eva Mor, who co-wrote the play with Gabi Mor, is a doctor and author of a volume titled Making the Golden Years Golden. Wouldn't you know it, but in one scene Aysha enters and says to Paula, "I just came back from a great lecture, with the author of the book Making the Golden Years Golden. And we were talking after and she inspired me to go back to school. I'm going to start my PhD!" This isn't the only time the book gets mentioned; could The Bigot exist solely as a marketing device?

Under Michael Susko's direction, the cast is better than you might imagine, although Stephen Payne, a fine character actor last seen in Straight White Men, deserves far better than the hopeless role of Jim. But Dana Watkins gets at the mix of love and ambivalence at the heart of Seth, even if the character is woefully underwritten. Jaimi Page lends some much-needed charm to Paula, although Faiven Feshazion tends to go over the top as Aysha. (It doesn't help the cause of the two female characters that they repeatedly tell each other, "What's nice is that we've been together for two months, thirteen days, five hours, and twenty-four minutes, and I love you today more than ever." The numbers keep rising from scene to scene, along with one's irritation at such cloying behavior.)

The production has a decent design package. Adam Crinson's set lays out two very different living rooms, and the space is capably reshaped by Daniel L. Taylor's lighting. Barbara Erin Delo's costumes show real thought about each character, along with an eye for detail. But this is a silly, superficial treatment of a profoundly troubling issue. After a few nice chats and a trip to the hospital, Jim is such a changed man that you wouldn't be surprised if he supported a presidential ticket that consists of Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. --David Barbour

(8 May 2019)

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