Thursday, September 8, 2011
Thursday Night in Williamsburg: The Glass Bandits Theater Company presents "The Little Mermaid" at McCarren Park
Tonight in the darkness of the northeast corner of McCarren Park, we were treated to a haunting, hypnotic reimagining of The Little Mermaid by the Glass Bandits Theater Company. "That was awesome," one woman behind us on the grass said as the gorgeously conceived and executed performance ended around 10:15 p.m. "Totally awesome," her companion said. We agree.
This "work/shop production," written by James Ortiz and Frank Winters and directed by James Ortiz, was a darkly evocative version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, employing an expressive puppet as the sea nymph of the title, and a cast of about a dozen young performers in a sweet, sad narrative told in contemporary dialogue, mythic choral language, choreography and song.
Perhaps this production struck us as remarkably fresh because we've managed to live sixty years in America without really knowing the Little Mermaid fairy tale (we were almost forty when the Disney film appeared and never have seen it). From what we can tell, it was quite faithful to Andersen's narrative.
We wondered how the company would light the performance since it began so late for an outdoor park production, but the occasional dimness felt very much like the sea and night settings of the story.
The clear plastic wrap used ingeniously to mimic the waves, among other things, was very effective, and the one or two bright lights plus two flashlights manned by members of the company kept everything very clear. (Lighting design was by Robert Lilly.)
Ortiz and Winters' language in the script was poetic without being pretentious or maudlin; its simplicity, as voiced by the cast members, matched the grace of the puppetry. In addition to the Little Mermaid, who was sometimes just a head, sometimes a whole mermaid, and then, after her transformation, a human woman with legs, there was a reptilian Sea Witch monster with a truly frightening mien. Kudos to Strangemen & Co. for these remarkable puppets and to the actors, including the director/writer, who manipulated them so skillfully.
The costumes of the human performers, stark charcoal gray dresses for the women mermaids and puppeteers, black outfits for the male puppeteers, as well as the upscale preppy-hipster clothes of the prince and his fiancee -- costume design was by Sarah Hinkley -- retained the simplicity and grace notes of the rest of the production.
The cast, according to the program, included Devin Dunne Cannon, Christopher Devlin, Melissa Farmer, Glenna Grant, Joanna Hartshorne, Eunice Hong, Julia Lawler, Nick Lehane, James Ortiz, Micah Stock and Diana Stahl, did a terrific job, although in the beginning our 60yo ears had some trouble making out all of the individual lines in the chorus. That went away, and for most of the production we heard things clearly, despite the competition from buses, cars, trucks and motorcycles just a few feet away.
The audience was mostly -- as usual in Williamsburg -- a lot younger and a zillion times hipper than us, though we noticed a few older dogwalkers so struck by the production that they stopped to watch the rest of the play. You couldn't blame them, because the action was so mesmerizing.
This was not a production of The Little Mermaid for children, whose parents might have been tempted to take them to McCarren Park if the performance had begun in daylight.
Glass Bandits Theater Company's version of the fairy tale would probably be disturbing to kids, though not because of any language (the prince, true to his character as a semi-suicidal semi-alcoholic hipster-fighting-his-yuppie-self, says "fucking," "asshole," etc.) or violence but just because of its deeply mordant character. It's a romantic tragedy, as relentless as anything from ancient Greece.
When the prince's fiance, standing on a chair as if onstage in a club, sings "When I Fall in Love," it's clearly a moment for an audience of adults. The music by Sam Bennet, John Feliciano and Will Whatley, was an appropriate mixture of the simple and the sophisticated. The choreography, by Jill Echo, was for us one of the things we'll most remember about this performance.
According to the program, "Glass Bandits Theater Company is a Brooklyn based collaborative gang of lovable misfits interested in making thrilling, accessible, unmannered theatrical events that bridge the gap between audience and performers. Our goal? To get young and non-traditional patrons excited about going to the theater! Can’t seeing a play be as exciting as watching a band play at the neighborhood dive? Everyone’s a Bandit! See a show, get some free glasses and let’s definitely grab a drink after."
We're sure everyone else in the audience did, but those of us born in the Truman administration just walked home and had a glass of water with our nightly dose of Flomax and Inderal. We're really grateful to the Glass Bandits Theater Company, and to the indispensible Open Space Alliance, for making this production of The Little Mermaid available to the community. Check out their coming theatrical events.