Recently in my hometown of Rockaway Borough, I attended a play at the Bell & Barter Theatre. It’s a place for children’s theatre art, where stage plays, concerts and other fun stuff occurs for kids and the families.
The theatre building was first constructed in 1972 and first became a venue for children’s theatre arts in 2002. Kids of elementary and middle school ages have flocked to its stage, often engaging in fairy tale-like stories that have big twists. In some cases, Red Riding Hood is the villain, while the wolf is the misunderstood outcast. Tales of Edgar Allan Poe become adapted to opera. Not to mention, gunslinging cowboys break the fourth wall, while satirizing the conventions of a western tale.
For the holidays, I got to see “Tales of Hans Christian Andersen,” adapted by Carolyn Lane. This consisted of four vignettes; each of a story by the Danish author: The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Swineherd, The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid. These are just four tales that have become timeless classic for both children and adults that transcend ages. They are the subject of countless adaptations, from film, to animation, to theatre and even ballet.
This particular children’s adaptation surprised me in many ways. For one thing, they were each faithful to the original storylines, even some, like The Little Mermaid and Tin Soldier, with their tragic ending, yet treated with age-appropriate sensitivity. There was comedy, the old plot twists and moral lessons that have been passed down to generations. Generations that include Bell & Barter’s talented bunch, who come from all over the county; such as Boonton, Denville, Dover, East Hanover, Jefferson, Kevil, Montville, Parsippany, Rockaway, Vernon Bloomfield, Morris Township and Wayne.
Furthermore, as with every production, there was charm. Every young performer has a smile, a pouty face, a scream and a tear that melt and warm a heart at same time. Anyone who can remember the innocence and optimism of childhood? That feeling that anything is possible and magic exists? It definitely comes alive on theatre stage where an actor is given the opportunity to pretend to be someone different within an exciting adventure.
Then there’s another thing I noticed. This play took place within an old antique toy store on Christmas Day. If there’s one thing that’s become apparent for Andersen’s fairy tales, they become associated with Christmas. The Fir Tree and The Little Match Girl themselves have definite holiday elements. But in cases like The Tin Soldier, it’s become sort of Christmas-like tale considering the main characters are toys. When it comes to some adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, we can often see a Christmas scene considering that at one point of the story, the outcast character spends winter with humans. Of course, what happens during that season?
Andersen’s stories also contain themes and subjects that are related to typical Christmas stories. Usually, we find protagonist on adventures or in situation that test their morality. They can be of high status or street folk with highly prejudice belief or humble attitudes. Sometimes, they are outcasts who finds self-empowerment or pursue desires that turn out to be hollow in the end. We see satires on authority, the power of love and the never-ending struggle between good and evil. Whether the story ends happily or tragically, we feel the message. Theses message can be felt during Christmas time.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier is about devotion to duty and how fate or chance seems to determine our lives more than free will. It is also about unyielding love and desire. During the holiday, we often have a dual devotion to work and other tasks. We remember then why we do these things. And that’s for the people we love; especially the individual we exchange vows with at the altar.
The Swineherd is about the vanity of a royal princess and how her life becomes to an end with the loss of her status after the peasant she mistreats turns out to be a prince. For people like her, life is defined by materialism and power. Christmas is a time not to be thankful of what we don’t have, but we do have. Not to mention, it’s a time to revel in the custom of giving what it is that we’d probably want for ourselves to others who need it more.
The Ugly Duckling is about one of the most beloved characters who is outcast by his appearance and behaviors. This creates a love and desire for beautiful things and he wants so much to be such a creature that is loved and admired by all. No individual can claim they don’t seek acceptance for who they are. In the end, like the titular character, we find our inner beauty and embrace who we are. The holidays is not a time when you should care about other people’s opinions of yourself. You should forget them and enjoy the moment with those who do accept you for who you are.
The Little Mermaid is a tragedy of unrequited love, self-sacrifice and the painful consequences from exploring a new world. It’s also a tale of a young girl being rewarded for her goodness, even in the face of failure and doom. At the end of the year, we reflect on what decisions we’ve made and the things we experienced from them. For some, it’s an assurance that we are doing well in our lives, but for others, it just makes us depressed and wish we could do back in time. For that sense, Christmas is not only a time of being jolly, it is a time for redemption. We set this in stone on New Year’s Eve at midnight. More importantly, we acknowledge our faults and therefore use them as guidelines for the future, while still daring to trend uncharted territories.
This I felt during the show at Bell & Barter Theatre. And with the stern dedication of Aaron Lesser as the one-legged Tin Soldier; the wit, discipline and chemistry between Jackson Magliaro and Robyn Seltzer as the Swineherd and the Princess; the versatility of Aditi Madiwalla as both the Ugly Duckling and the evil Sea Witch in two stories; and veteran professionalism of Arianna Rheuport as The Little Mermaid; and with the inviting tenderness of Nolan Lardiere as the Danish author addressing the audience, the Christmas spirit in Rockaway Borough and all surrounding communities were channeled through this production. As far as I’m concerned, in the years I have been to Bell & Barter and the countless kids who have graced its stage, this will be one of my favorite productions. Already I cannot wait for what they have after the New Year and in spring.
In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what the holidays have in store. As of now, through my freelancing, I’ve been to holiday boutiques, tree lightings and Santa Runs all over the county. But it’s still not Christmas Day yet! And what will the New Year bring when the ball drops in Times Square? I don’t know, but I bet it’s something Hans Christian Andersen would look forward to as he would have, while sitting by his fireplace, reflecting on his stories and the things in his life that inspired them.
Other Bell & Barter performers I wish to acknowledge include Clara McKinney, Gia Clegg, Alexa Oricchio, Christopher Kroengman, Riley Yarnall, Olivia Sokol, Jesse and Jordan Dally, and Sophie and Piper DeChene.
“Tales of Hans Christian Andersen” was produced by special arrangement with Pioneer Drama Services, Inc., from Englewood, Colorado.
The play was staged and produced by Steven M. Schweer, president and technical director of the Bell & Barter Theatre; and was directed by Lori Dolandson.