The wonderful old Rose Theater was full of eager children and doting parents at the opening performance of Brian Guehring and Stephanie Jacobson’s evocation of two Hans Christian Andersen tales. This is a new take, i.e a world premiere, combining famous The Little Mermaid with more obscure The Grocer’s Goblin. For most of the 50 or so minutes puppets took center stage, offering a colorful array of eye candy much enriched by marvelous looking scenic designs and projections by Brad Carlson and Brittany Merenda.
In that small amount of time Andersen’s stories got short shrift and the only way kids could have grasped what was happening would have been if they’d come prepared with synopses in advance. That material is in the program book but it seemed unlikely that anyone in the theater, struggling with coats, wriggling in seats and gabbing would have had time to learn the material. Should you plan to take your little ones to this experience you might want to prepare. You shouldn’t have to.
Guering’s script comes full of babble, including wasting ten precious minutes before setting up the goblin premise wherein actual actors appear. After that, a few things happen of minimal interest. Then when the mermaid part of the performance unfolds, barely sketching in the tale. Depth exists in the mermaid’s realm but very little of it surfaces in this version of the story. How much development would you expect in 50 minutes?
A grocer permits a goblin to reside in his shop. At night The Goblin can animate objects; they even speak. A traveling student stays the night and reads the story of The Little Mermaid. There The Mermaid falls in love with a human prince. She enters a pact with The Sea Witch to become human herself and goes on land. When things don’t work out, she wants to revert to being a mermaid. She can’t without killing The Prince. Refusing to do so she leaps into the sea and dissolves into foam. Back to the grocer’s. There’s a fire. The student rescues the book.
Jacobson created several excellent puppets, and, no doubt, children in the audience will remain fascinated, even though the puppeteers look inadequately trained. Jacobson’s direction has staging flaws. At the opening, the people manipulating the well-deigned Goblin couldn’t get him to stand upright. And they clumsily lifted him upstairs instead of having him walk. Meanwhile, a butter churn, a trash bin and a cash box are supposed to come alive. Three cast members stayed next to the props and, in minimal illusion, moved them slightly while talking as if they were those items. Loosely this be called Bunraku, given that the puppeteers are deliberately visible. But they should be minimally seen, often dressed in black or in clothes whose colors blend with what they move. Instead, these five people wear too much white. Jacobsen could have corrected that.
The Mermaid scenes involve shadow puppetry. In this case, correctly, the underwater creatures are flat figures on rods. But, at the opening performance performers’ hands, backlit behind screens, were evident. Certainly some of the rods were too short. Actual humans appear as shadows of humans, in a, questionably,entirely different scale than the puppets. Having them further upstage could have helped. Often during these scenes those performers were clumsily, clearly obvious, moving in the half-light among the screens. By now director Jacobson may have found time to go into the theater, seen the results and worked with her cast and puppet makers to resolve some of these flaws.
After the show, the theatre lobby was filled with lively, excited children whose parents could have supplemented the experience by buying toys from amid a vast selection. No doubt the little ones went home happy, perhaps unaware of what this production still needed. It needs work.
The Grocer’s Goblin & The Little Mermaid continues through February 16 at The Rose, 2001 Farnam Street, Omaha. Fridays at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 5 p.m. Sundays at 2:00 p.m. $14-18. More info at 402.345.4849 or www.rosetheater.org