“Frozen” might have the ubiquity only a Disney-sized budget can produce, but the House Theatre of Chicago has its own magical winter’s tale in “The Snow Queen.” Some 15 years after Victory Gardens premiered its adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s ice-bound fairy tale, House Artistic Director Lanise Antoine Shelley has created her own adaptation.
The puppetry and the magic remain, but this telling reflects a world where pollution has damaged the farthest edges of a planet, human trash accumulating in snowpacks high in the uninhabitable reaches of the Arctic Circle.
Shelley retains the touchstones of Andersen’s original: A shattered magic mirror brings about calamity. A child must embark on a vast, snowy odyssey in order to set the world right and save a beloved friend. In Andersen’s tale, trolls almost destroy the world. In Shelley’s telling, that destruction is at the hands of humans, heedless of the fact that all things on Earth are connected, their very survival included.
That might sound heavy and didactic, but director Amber D. Montgomery’s 85-minute staging is neither. The tone of the production is playful. Watching it feels like stepping into an enchanted storybook.
That story centers on best friends/cousins Quin (Jackie Seijo) and Kai (Vincent Williams) and their life-changing encounter with the mysterious Chione (Vero Maynez). Chione has big magic to share, but the trio’s carelessness with it puts Kai in mortal danger, leaving Quin and Chione on a desperate quest to rescue him.
Shelley’s ending bumbles a bit. It’s abrupt and feels more convenient than earned. Moreover, the wise-crone archetype Womoon (Molly Brennan) speaks in faux-mystical platitudes. But this is a show designed to reach the hearts of children, and that demographic will be entranced throughout.
Jesse Mooney-Bullock’s puppets are fantastical: A polar bear the size of a small car lumbers through the wilderness with her cub. An arctic fox (Roxy Adviento) sniffs and yips through the snow. A white raven (Thomas Tong) swoops and cackles. Montgomery appropriately adds magic to the otherworldly tale, with longtime House artist Dennis Watkins consulting on the illusions. A fist uncurls to unleash an entire blizzard of whirling snowflakes. Blood-red roses materialize from seemingly nowhere.
Like Kai and Quin, Chione has an epic growth arc to traverse, and Maynez manages well, starting out with a childlike impetuousness before morphing into a regal source of wisdom and warning. Seijo creates an amiable Quin, a child whose trust has to be earned and whose loyalty, once given, is unbreakable. A double-cast Williams is bratty and endearing as Kai and later unrecognizable as Smith, a goggled-denizen of the endless north.
Tong makes the white raven Harpier a squawking delight, a winged wiseacre and the kind of bird best friend anyone would be lucky to have.
Montgomery doesn’t try to render the puppeteers invisible — nobody’s wearing black, and there’s no attempt made to hide the manipulation of various mechanisms. Yet when the fox or Harpier or those bears are on stage, the puppeteers seem to disappear.
Throughout, the production is immersive. Erin Pleake’s video design, Liviu Pasare’s projections and Sully Ratke’s set and costume design work together to create a cinematic world. Ratke’s surprisingly mobile fields of snow and ice are crusted with flapping plastic bags and other trash. Pasare and Pleake bring a magic mirror to life, making the Andes and the Himalayas (among other distant lands) appear and disappear.
In several scenes, the snowy landscape darkens so that shadow plays can unfold, stark images of light and dark creating crystal-clear storytelling. Lighting designer Trey Brazeal also does indispensable work, dressing the stage in cool blues and greens, including a Northern Lights show that credibly invokes the real phenomenon.
When all the elements come together (including a score by co-composer/sound designers Olanrewaju Adelowe and Kevin O’Donnell), “The Snow Queen” delivers a seasonal delight with an evergreen message.