The Blue Demon at the Huntington Theatre now through February 2nd is the world premiere of an extravagantly beautiful 90 minutes of storytelling written and directed by Resident Director Darko Tresnjak. Using deceptively simple traditions of stagecraft and storytelling, he and composer Michael Friedman use live actors, onstage musicians and puppets to tell a culturally diverse collection of ancient fables that stand the test of time and offer a little moral for today.
Like Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning jolt in the arm for “story theatre,” Tresnjak’s production also evolved from his work with student-actors. While Zimmerman’s stories from Ovid had their genesis in a pool at Northwestern University, Tresnjak’s collection of folktales was brought to life in a field at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 1998.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
To set the evening of storytelling in motion Tresnjak draws upon “The Hunchback’s Tale,” the story of a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim drawn together by their assumed complicity in the demise of the Sultan’s favorite storyteller. Scheherazade sets the framework for the rest of the stories by suggesting one of the accused might replace the lost Jester. Each must now compete to chase away the Sultan’s “blue demons” and cure his insomnia with a story.
Unlike Metamorphoses, which is a collection of stories of varying lengths, we now know we’re in for a series of three roughly equivalent presentations. In something of a Commedia dell'Arte tradition, rather than distributing the roles amongst his company of professional and student actors, Tresnjak assigns equivalent parts to the same ones in each of the unfolding tales. While diverse enough to make the company seems three-fold larger, each actor excels only in particular roles.
Brian Sgambati (the juvenile) is an unremarkable husband in “The Tailor’s Tale” and a generic prince in “The Scrivener’s Tale,” but he pops to life as The Beggar in “The Jeweler’s Tale.” Likewise, Anna Belknap (the ingénue) struggles with the sexuality of The Wife, is enchanting as The Princess and then unconvincing again as The Last Virgin. Tom Flynn (the old man) is “two for three” as a delightfully slimy Wizard, a convincingly morose King, but an undistinguished Old Sultan. Another who does triple duty is Tom Flynn. We first see him as the victim in “The Hunchback’s Tale.” He reappears as The Servant in the first story and, most endearingly, brings The Peddler to life in the third.
In a program note Artistic Director Nicholas Martin confesses that “as a rule al fresco theatre with puppets is my idea of hell,” but goes on to say that the original production enchanted him because of Tresnjak’s blending of diverse theatrical elements to weave a story “simply and engagingly.”
By offering the full resources of The Huntington Theatre to mount the world premiere of The Blue Demon, Martin has perhaps undermined some of that original spirit. Much credit goes to Scenery Designer David P. Gordon, Costume Designer Linda Cho, Lighting Designer Rui Rita for making this an enchanting evening. And mention must also be made of the work done by props master Kris Holmes to create the puppets Tresnjak designed.
But stripped of these gorgeous trappings, the script in its present form wouldn’t hold up. The requisite attempt to spice things up with contemporary references and sensibilities falls flat. Perhaps, given more time, this company could invest more of themselves into the creation and find the right balance of anachronisms.
It’s also too bad that an unnecessary “adult” spin makes this production, which would otherwise be a wonderful introduction to the magic of theatre, unsuitable for younger children. Two of the three main stories have themes of a sexual nature and, while there’s no nudity, strong language or unnecessary violence, the staging does warrant the caution.
As usual, The Huntington offers the following ongoing special events to enrich what already promises to be a cure for those mid-winter “blue demons.”
And for this production only, two additional special offers:
Family Day matinee
The Blue Demon Cocktail
The Blue Demon is at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through February 2nd. For additional information and tickets call the Huntington Box Office at 617 266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org. Tickets also available from Ticketmaster at 617 931-2787.