Proper fairy tales, stories like the ones devised so long ago by the brothers Grimm, are at least a bit macabre and scary. After all, what does happily ever after mean if the gal or guy at the center of the tale doesn’t have to triumph over peril to get to that dream ending?
Rose and the Rime, the fourth House Theatre of Chicago production to play the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is a proper fairy tale, one that will appeal to everyone from not-too-little kids to adults.
Devised by artistic director Nathan Allen, Chris Mathews and Jake Minton, the play will make some theatergoers think of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen or Disney’s Frozen, though Rose and the Rime preceded the Disney mega hit. But make no mistake: Rose and the Rime is an original, cleverly realized, beautifully acted piece of theater.
The House’s aesthetic involves a more overt engagement with its audiences, so before the show, the costumed actors mingle and chat with the crowd. A “snowy” landscape — a large white tarp dotted with paper snowflakes — becomes a pre-show playground for Miami kids whose experience with the real thing is likely scant to zero. They pick up handfuls of the paper snow and hurl it at each other or lie down to make snow angels.
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Once the show starts, though, the tone isn’t nearly as carefree.
The young heroine Rose (Paige Collins) is an orphan living with her uncle Roger (John Henry Roberts) in the little town of Radio Falls, an isolated place locked in perpetual winter. An icy curse was placed on Radio Falls when the frightening Rime Witch (Ericka Ratcliff) absconded with a magic coin, a glowing piece of metal with the power to control the weather and much more.
Having had her fill of lifelong winter, Rose sets off to recover the coin, her disappearance frightening her frantic uncle and their neighbors. Along her way to the witch’s lair, plucky Rose encounters cracking ice on a frozen lake, a wild sled ride, a woods full of wolves and a terrible snow storm — all a warmup for the witch, a flying creature with preternaturally long and twisted fingers, who proceeds to swallow Rose whole.
Things turn out OK for Rose and the town, at least for a while, but that bit about the witch having little girl munchies isn’t an isolated incident. Rose and the Rime has plenty of light-hearted, funny, sweet moments. But it is also quite dark in places, possibly the stuff of nightmares for the littlest theatergoers.
Director Allen, choreographer Tommy Rapley and set designer Collette Pollard use simple, minimalist techniques to create rich worlds. That wild sled ride is accomplished by having four actors lift Rose with poles placed through her sled’s runners, tilting her wooden perch as they carry her around the stage. The barren “trees” that hide the wolves in the woods are nothing more than painted poles. Stage illusions figure into Rose’s journey into the witch’s belly and her own later experience with motherhood.
Composer Kevin O’Donnell supplies a dark lullaby for the witch and an R&B-flavored courtship song for Jimmy (Brandon Holmes), the guy who becomes Rose’s beau.
Coming off a long run in Chicago, the cast delivers polished, involving performances. Collins and Ratcliff, in particular, are splendid as the innocent and the ruined villain, characters linked in a way that becomes unsettlingly clear by the end of the play.
With its themes of the ruinous effects of greed and the circular nature of life, Rose and the Rime is a stage fairy tale with a haunting resonance. And you don’t have to travel all the way to Chicago to see it.