THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Classic Meet Inclusion
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Whistle Stop Theatre Company at The Hanover Arts & Activity Center, 500 South Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005
Performances: December 1, 7, 14 & 15, 2018
Ticket Price: $10
The holiday season, spanning Halloween through New Year’s Day (or even through Three Kings Day in January) is often seen as a time for traditions. Families get together and reminisce, pull out old photos, resurrect games and decorations and recipes from previous generations. For some, it means an annual trip to see The Nutcracker or a marathon showing of A Christmas Story (which is now considered politically incorrect).
Richmond’s theater community has many holiday offerings, ranging from the adults-only Who’s Holiday with a grown-up Cindy Lou Who at RTP to the wacky whodunit The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays at Hanover Tavern and the trailer park trashiness of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas at CAT. There’s also A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and the very intense A Doll’s House (which is not a Christmas story but does have a Christmas tree in it) at The Basement. (My apologies if I omitted any shows from this informal and unofficial list!)
For family oriented entertainment, there’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins at VaRep at Willow Lawn, which my 4- and 10-year-old grandsons enjoyed. On Friday, December 14, 2018, I made my way out to Ashland, VA (aka “the Center of the Universe”) for my first experience with the Whistle Stop Theatre Company, whose director, Louise Ricks, has fashioned an inclusive version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Match Girl. Like many classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Andersen’s story is rather gruesome and graphic in the details of a young girl selling matches to help support her family. It’s cold, and she has only a thin wrap and a pair of slippers that belonged to her late grandmother are a poor substitute for boots or proper shoes. Even these are taken from her and she has no luck selling matches to the hurried and preoccupied townspeople who brush past her as she called out New Year’s greetings. In the end, she dies. Before the end, however, she strikes her matches to provide a bit of comfort for herself and her only friend – a cat named Gerda. “You’re not mangy,” The Little Match Girl assures her companion, “You’re. . .unkempt!” The glow of the fire illuminates her dying visions.
But Ricks has taken these moments and expanded them to include tales from other cultures, providing levity, insight, empathy, morality, hope, and cultural inclusion. There’s “The Uninvited Guest” (Jewish folktale for Hanukkah), “Babushka” (a Russian tale about the Three Wise Men), and “Uwungalama” (a South African folktale about a magical tree that provides unending fruit). So, there’s acknowledgement of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and even Three Kings Day, all in one play that runs about 45 minutes.
Set in the round, using only a square platform and three black boxes, The Little Match Girl intimate and as much a night of storytelling as it is theater. The cast consists of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic ensemble of nine, most of whom play multiple roles. Sweet and natural, Ziona Tucker plays The Little Match Girl, with Caroline Beals as Gerda, her cat. Caroline’s gestures and mewls are perfectly on point.
Shalandis Wheeler Smith played the Wind, a Thief, a Venomous Snake, an Elderly Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Marcos Martinez is a Passerby, an Elderly Person, the African King, and one of the Three Kings. Annie Zanetti, one of my personal favorites for her generous caricatures, accents, and unrelenting commitment to her characters, played the Mother, the Wide, a Townsperson, and Babushka. She was also spirit of The Little Match Girl’s Grandmother who welcomed her into heaven. Walter Riddle was the Wind, a Thief, a Beggar, and a Townsperson, while Justin Sisk was a Sales Person, Father, Husband, Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Finally, Prudence Reynolds was The Child and Sarah Rose Wilkinson played guitar – the only accompaniment.
Great theater? No. Prudence, at one point kept looking towards the door. I assume a family member or friend had just entered. Given the minimal set and props, the ensemble had to mime such details as a dinner table and the gifts of the Wise Men. It was difficult to tell exactly what sort of work Babushka was performing, we just knew it was all-consuming and had Zanetti winding her bottom like a Jamaican dancehall girl.
One young audience member, presumably one not acclimated to live theater, at one point broke out into uncontrollable laughter. Zanetti handled this beautifully, including the young lady and her friends in an interactive search for “the Newborn King,” An inviting family-friendly experience? Yes, and well worth the trip to the unfamiliar territory of Ashland! Not only is this a welcoming environment for families with children of all ages, the program began with a gentle introduction to theater etiquette, and can be enjoyed by audience members from ages 3 and up on age-appropriate levels of understanding. In keeping with the outreach and communication, on Friday audience members who arrived early on Friday were able to take photos with The Snow Queen (Ricks), and on Saturday there are holiday crafts before the 3:00pm show.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Louise Ricks & Whistle Stop Theatre Company