THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: A Creatively Inclusive Take on a Classic

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

Info: https://whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com/ or email whistletoptheatre@gmail.com with any questions or concerns. The Whistle Stop Theatre Company does not have a phone number.

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.

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks & Whistle Stop Theatre Company

Little Match Girl 6
Marcos Martinez, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Ziona Tucker, and Walter Riddle
Little Match Girl 4
Annie Zanetti and Prudence Reynolds
Little Match Girl 5
Ziona Tucker and Caroline Beales
Little Match Girl 2
Ziona Tucker

 

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THE GAME’S AFOOT: Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem for the Holidays

THE GAME’S AFOOT: Holmes for the Holidays

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: November 30, 2018 – January 6, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

Ken Ludwig’s hilarious whodunit, The Game’s Afoot, continues the comedic theme of this season’s holiday shows. (See my reviews of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas November 30, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol November 25, and Who’s Holiday November 18). Debra Clinton directs this murderous farce that has more twists and turns than a roller coaster, a task that must have been made easier by her stellar cast of characters, most of whom are no strangers to the Hanover Tavern stage.

Scott Wichmann stars as Broadway actor William Gillette (a real life actor who made a name for himself playing Sherlock Holmes on Broadway). There’s a play within a play, and life imitates art as Gillette is shot by an unknown assailant while taking his bows at the end of his show. Recuperating at his palatial Connecticut mansion (also real, and now known as Gillette Castle State Park, in Lyme, CT), Gillette invites his friends and fellow cast members to spend the Christmas holidays with him and his mother, Martha (Catherine Shaffner).

Gillette, however, has an ulterior motive. Having blurred the line between his own life and that of the character he portrayed for two decades, he fancies himself a sleuth and sets out to uncover the identify of his mystery assailant – and solve a few other mysteries along the way. Mayhem and misdirection ensue, and Clinton keeps things moving at a fast pace. There is physical comedy and lines that depend on split second timing are delivered flawlessly. There are plenty of clues and possible motives, so it’s not a complete surprise when we find out “whodunit,” but the ride is so much fun that the end is not the focal point.

Wichmann makes Gillette, who tends to be pompous, a bit more endearing, but there’s no mistaking who is the star here. Shaffner is hilarious as his mother, who always has a flask close at hand. Joe Pabst plays the role of Gillette’s best friend, Felix and his bumbling attempts at subterfuge are a highlight of the show. Donna Marie Miller is the villain here – a vengeful theatre critic named Daria Chase who has dirt on everyone and knows how to use it.  However, I was taken aback when she had a meltdown and demanded to be left alone – in Gillette’s house. Umm, that’s now how things work. . .

Meg Carnahan and Caleb Wade play the newlywed couple Aggie Wheeler and Simon Bright and Lisa Kotula is Felix’s wife, Madge whose big scene involves a seance. All have secrets that come to light when a strange detective, Inspector Goring, arrives to investigate a murder that may or may not have happened. Audra Honaker makes the role of Goring most interesting, alternately staring off into space or spouting off lines from Shakespeare. Given that the characters are all actors, there is much grandstanding, with each trying to outdo the other with dramatic delivery of drama and poetry.

The play’s isolated location and limited pool of suspects give this all the major requirements of the locked-room mystery genre, and Terrie Powers’ set attempts to capture the spirit of the genre as well. Derek Dumais and B.J. Wilkinson apparently had great fun with the sound and light design, creating lightning (it must have been a thundersnow storm) and thumps, bumps, and mysterious knocks and Sue Griffin’s costumes are in keeping with the period and the holiday spirit.

If this sounds a bit vague, some of the best moments and funniest situations cannot be mentioned here without spoiling it for those who have yet to see it. What I can say is that there are multiple doors and a secret room, as well as a wall full of weapons, which may or may not be loaded.  There are plots and subplots, motives and alibis, and even false confessions. Everyone is a suspect except the butler, because he was given the night off, it being Christmas Eve and all.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten.

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