The Andersen Project

The Andersen Project was certainly a unique theatrical experience.  It was so epic with so many different components that I came away with mixed feelings, but ultimately very glad I had a chance to see it.  First I want to talk about the performer himself, Yves Jacques.  In the first scene, where he shows up to his apartment above the peepshow, I really didn’t like his energy.  There was something dull, flat, about the Canadian albino writer, I felt like the actor wasn’t fully present or committed.  I was apprehensive given that I knew it was a 2 hour 15 minute one-man show.  However, when he first appeared as the second character, Arnaud the French opera administrator, my opinion shifted.  The first time we meet this character he is having a cup of coffee with the first character.  He talks for probably 15 minutes straight in a thick French accent.  The pace and rhythm of his non-stop chatter was hilarious and extremely compelling.  The energy of the character was so different from the first I realized not only that what I had not liked about the first character was a choice, but that this man was an extremely capable performer.  Both the two main characters, Frederick and Arnaud were equally well rounded.  The dry humor Frederick showed in the many scenes with the dog in the park accompanied with the tremendous amount of sympathy he evoked with all the bad luck that befalls Frederick.  Arnaud was a seemingly repulsive character, a conniving businessman with dirty secrets, but when we saw him dealing with family problems he was full of love and tenderness.  Jacques was able to sustain energy through the whole time; employing a wonderful amount of ease while at the same time creating very different characters who each went on their own equally complete journey.

At face value a 2hr+ one-man does not seem like a practical undertaking, but what was so interesting about the construction of The Andersen Project was that ultimately it would not have worked as anything other than a one-man show.  This was due to the extreme use of technology and effects in the show.  The degree to which lights, sound, video, set and puppetry were put to use surrounded and supported Yves through the 2hrs in a way that was crucial to the structural success of the show.  In fact, it would not have been as successful if there were more bodies on stage.  The dynamic of a man in space surrounded by all these elements was an effective and clear storytelling device.  They are used in a nice balance of overwhelming and intimate ways.  In the drug infused sequence on the train the video, lights, and sound were more impressive than a lot of concerts I’ve been to.  When Arnaud, tucks his daughter in at night he tells her one of Andersen’s stories, using the bedroom lamp to illustrate his tale with shadow in a lovely, moving, fashion.  The scenes in the park were a wonderful combination of technical elements.  The huge columns dominated the space, impressing the audience and framing the sole actor in a powerful way.  At the same time, these were some of the most endearing scenes as they always featured the dog puppet on the cable across the stage, which I thought was one of the most effective uses of design.

The design and the actor functioned well with the writing of the piece to produce a meticulously layered story.  Themes slowly revealed themselves and dots were connected to present an immensely complex story.  Both Arnaud and Frederick’s lives slowly slip out of their grasp even as they attempt to wield a tighter grasp over them.  Their identities slip away from them and they get pulled into a world of darkness.  Their quests mirror that of Andersen’s as well as that of this story The Driad; we follow the big pretty lights in search of validation, but who can give that to us in a way that truly satisfies us?  In the meantime we lose our innocence and true sense of ourselves and from where we came.  I found the story and writing intellectually very stimulating but sometimes dry.  The whole piece was a very dark affair, literally and figuratively, and there was a period where I had to fight drowsiness but it picked up.  The fairy tale quality underscores the piece well but also creates a distance, I very much felt I was watching the journey not experiencing it.  I also felt there was just too much in it.  The story is very segmented, and you become more aware of the segmentation as the technology is used in different ways for each different episode.  It seems like we watch several different short plays, as a result of both the plot and the design, and try as I might I cannot for the life of me think of a reason why this piece does not have an intermission.  It does not make it easy on its audience, which on the one hand I greatly admire, but sometimes its rigid insistence that you come to it is taxing.

Something else that struck me about this particular experience of seeing The Andersen Project was seeing it in that particular space.  ArtsEmerson’s Cutler Majestic Theater is beautiful, a space anyone would love to perform in.  A little ways into the performance however, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the piece I was seeing and the style of the space.  The Andersen Project is such a distinctly modern piece, with it’s video and projection use and the contemporary electronic music the Cutler Majestic seemed like an odd venue.  It is so old, ornate, and delicate, it reminds me of some of the older Broadway houses.  It’s traditional beauty and layout reminded me of a place where one would see a classic musical, Shakespeare, or Miller.  It was odd to see such a distinctly contemporary piece with innovative conventions in a venue such as this.

Furthermore I don’t think I’ve ever seen something where I thought so much about the production execution during the performance.  For example the set pieces for the park scenes were these three massive columns that stretched up beyond the audiences view.  These pillars were moved on and off the stage often and easily however.  Same with the two big set pieces that made the peep show and were used facing the other way for the phone station.  Jacques went through his quick changes with blinding efficiency, and some of them were so dramatic you felt there had to be another actor involved.  The peep show, pillars, and screen rotated up and down the deck so smoothly you couldn’t help but be aware of the efficiency with which the production was being managed.  In the same way that although it is a one-man show but he is supported by impressive technical elements, he is also supported by an extremely capable crew that makes an incredible task seem strikingly easy.

Overall, the piece interweaves its themes clearly and succinctly; exploring the mind and message of Hans Christen Andersen’s tales through a contemporary story.  As the audience you encounter the ideas in vastly different ways over the course of the piece.  The use of technology and media does not cloud them however, but makes them very clear, and enables them to be layered over one another extensively.  I find this emphasis on story to be the most compelling element of work like LePage’s, Young Jean Lee, Tim Crouch, etc.  That while pushing the envelope of form they remain clear about and devoted to the story they set out to tell.  The other thing that really struck me about this piece, in thinking about the innovative theatre we’ve been discussing recently, was that the audience’s role was very traditional.  We sat in a dark house, not moving for 2+ hours, watching the story unfold before us on stage, yet it was completely compelling and different.  It was cool to see piece that presents itself in a dynamic new way tailored to a 21st century audience without focusing on moving the audience around or bringing them into the world.  I feel like all my thinking about this style of theatre has been limited by thoughts like “the audience HAS to move or HAS to be involved in some way.”

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