[2010001] Gerda’s Journey

Gerda’s Journey [FringeTIX]

theater simple @ Richmond Grove Winery, Peter Lehmann Wines, and Langmeil Winery

5:30pm, Fri 12 Feb 2010

The first Fringe show of the year, and following my ex’s creed of “always take the active option”, we jump in her car and head out to Tanunda to catch the Australian premiere of theater simple’s open-space imagining of Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Snow Queen. Google Maps on the iPhone took us on the circuitous scenic route (via Chain of Ponds) and, distracted by the promise of the delightfully fruity semillon at Vinecrest and the need for a belated lunch, we wind up running late, taking the wrong turn into Richmond Grove and then frantically dashing about, before finally finding the prescribed start location – right where the ticket said it would be. Oops.

The seven stories of Andersen’s tale are told in different locations spread throughout the leafy environs of the three neighbouring wineries; in between stories, the audience is whisked along to the next area by the ensemble cast and a swarm of helpers. It’s a big production; theater simple have brought seven members over from the US, and expanded the cast with a collection of lucky locals. And, right from the opening moments, I know that this was going to contain all the bits that I love about a simple production.

The first two chapters took place at our starting point; we’re introduced to the devils that cause our predicament, and then to young Gerda and her friend Kai. Kai, inflicted with the devil’s cruelty, spurns his friendship with Gerda and becomes enraptured with the Snow Queen, but is presumed dead; Gerda, not convinced by the rumours of his death, then embarks on a journey in search of her friend.

A short walk takes us to the enchanted Flower Garden, chock full of pantomimic exuberance with the reactions of the flowers to their watering (the buttercup’s effervescence and the tiger lily’s yawning indifference). Back to lush lawns for the Prince and Princess; the vocalisations and mannerisms of their crow attendants were divine.

It’s a bit more of a trek to the next location, a small hut that offered the most challenging sightlines of the evening with the sun setting directly behind the “stage”. But the journey itself was probably the highlight of the night for me; with our path stretching into the distance through the trees, we could see the robbers darting between the trees ahead, planning their assault on Gerda – and the audience in tow.

The road back to our starting place is more meandering, with lots of short stops along the way – only a minute here, five minutes there. And this pacing really lends itself well to the production; the children (and there were plenty of them present) were still enthusiastically skipping from one location to the next, and the adults – most of whom had carried glasses and bottles of ever-so-conveniently available wine around with them – were able to replenish supplies from the back of a ute at the appropriate time, with the final rush towards the conclusion of Gerda’s Journey being perfectly judged.

And so, with Gerda’s approach to the Snow Queen’s Palace, the snowflake guards whistle through the crowd to buffet her. The guards, as with the flowers and the crows, were wonderfully costumed with evocative minimalism; their little forward hunch literally raised their imposing hackles. The Palace itself, staged within the drooping confines of a tree and acting as a cocoon for Gerda and Kai’s reunion, led to a great climax; the ascension up the hill to return to our starting point was punctuated by character recurrences, both overt and in the background.

Now, it probably sounds like I’m gushing a bit over this performance – and on the one hand, that’s because I’ve got the luxury of time this early in the Fringe. But it’s also because theater simple have the unerring ability to impress me with their ability to (apparently effortlessly) conjure so much out of so little. The production of Gerda’s Journey is beautifully staged in the grounds of these wineries; the fact that the wineries were also hocking their wares didn’t hurt things, either. The costumes, as previously stated, were divine in their frugality; and the entire cast, local and import alike, managed to exude joy and whimsy with impeccable timing, and surprisingly (given their geographic disparity) they looked like a cohesive troupe.

Yes, I really enjoyed Gerda’s Journey. I’d love to see how the roaming presentation pans out in the Botanic Gardens; hopefully my schedule will allow that. And it was really great to see Llysa, Andrew, and Monique again – I really missed their presence last year. But the icing on the cake was the gathering that inadvertently occurred after the show; catching up with old friends, hugs and handshakes, talking to the cast. Talking wine with Rachael from Rockford; Guy O’Grady (from 2009’s Rough for Theatre II, and one of the floating cast here tonight – including his superb tiger lily performance) starting a conversation with “Are you the Festival Freak?” Made my Fringe, that did, and in the first show of the year, too :)

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