Bizarre is the word for opera director Chen Shi-Zheng’s hallucinogenic musical fantasy, loosely based on the life and work of children’s storyteller Hans Christian Andersen and timed to the 200th anniversary of the Danish author’s birth. One of the last (and least accessible) productions in Lincoln Center’s annual summer fling with the international avant-garde, show features an all-gal cast headed by stage divinity Fiona Shaw as the morbid Dane, a pleasantly spacey score and some mesmerizing stage f/x. But ironically, the concept of storytelling seems a total no-no for Chen and his creative collaborators.
Even if you’d read all 180 or so of the beloved storyteller’s tales and knew every wrinkle of his austere and extremely private life, there’s no making sense of the story because there isn’t one — just a flow of images culled from Andersen’s letters, diaries and stories, presented without connective narrative.
Phenom Irish actress Shaw (last on Broadway in “Medea”) is a sight to behold in her trouser role as the notoriously ugly, profoundly neurotic author — a tall, ungainly stork in plastic chain-mail frock coat and iridescent aquamarine pants who is so socially insecure he even fumbles the phrase “once upon a time.” But as this brilliant thesp wrestles the tongue-tied character for every thought and expression of feeling, a portrait emerges of a man who learned to fight his demons with words.
But what words? Inspired by the paper cuttings Andersen made to calm his nerves, Erik Ehn’s shapeless libretto consists of strings of words that form patterns of images from stories associated with the author. But in drawing images from “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Snow Queen,” among others, no attempt is made to connect them or give them coherent meaning. This antinarrative approach is rather like tearing pages out of a book, tossing them up in the air and grabbing any that come to hand.
In Chen’s free-form, strongly visual treatment, the images themselves are content and context. Players descend from the ceiling in chrysalislike cocoons and hanging from trapezes. They traverse the stage on roller skates and ice skates, or by crawling around on the floor. They wear pieces of artwork as costumes and freeze-frame themselves in lovely poses. They play with rubber duckies and other toys. When they speak, their words form pretty images but make no sense.
Within this context, there is more posing than acting going on, although Blair Brown suffers beautifully as the Mother who loses her child and is sadistically mistreated as she searches desperately.
Mary Lou Rosato also gives it the old school try as a choruslike figure meant to serve as the author’s alter ego. But despite her efforts to channel some Brechtian substance, her Shadow is no more a character than the paper cutouts strewn about the stage.
As for the posers, they are exceedingly lovely to look at — whatever you can see of them in Caitlin Ward’s exquisitely constructed but stiffly confining and inexpressive costumes. Qian Yi (“The Orphan of Zhao”) lends her dancer’s grace and trained singing voice both to Andersen’s lifelong friend, the singer Jenny Lind, and the silver-throated Nightingale he created in her honor.
In multiple roles, Argentinian thesp Mia Maestro (“Alias,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”) is especially winsome as the Little Mermaid, keeping her composure even when flapping her fishy tail from a trapeze high above the stage. Beauty-of-the-hour though she be, thesp is more than decorative and does just fine, thank you, with Stephin Merritt’s free-form song lyrics and meandering melodies.
The trippy little songs are actually something of a happy surprise, coming from this composer, the driving force behind cult band Magnetic Fields as well as Chen’s collaborator on previous pieces “The Orphan of Zhao” and “Peach Blossom Fan.”
While scant meaning can be snatched from his Scrabble-game lyrics for songs like “The Little Hebrew Girl,” “The Collar and the Garter” and “Auntie Toothache,” Merritt’s spacey melodies for oddly matched instruments like accordion and bassoon come out of a distinctly theatrical idiom.