The award-winning theater group known as Blessed Unrest knows how to remake classic stories with flare. Their 2016 production of “A Christmas Carol” was very well received by critics and audiences alike. In January of 2018, they debuted a new show for children (and adults) titled “The Snow Queen” at the New Ohio Theater in New York City which runs from December 31, 2017, to January 14, 2018.

The Snow Queen” was inspired by the classic fairy tale penned by Hans Christian Andersen and developed via residency at the New Victory LabWorks. The rendition was intended for children ages seven and up—as well as adults of all ages—and contains a number of multi-layered themes.

The story centers on a brave young woman named Gerda who aims to save her best friend, Kay, from a world that is frozen and devoid of any feelings or emotions. The show includes a lot of humor, very creative costumes, dance, singing, and music. Although the staging is quite plain from a production perspective, the incredibly talented cast of six makes full use of the space and expertly portrays a range of wildly different characters, both human and animal.

Play themes, audiences, and perspectives

The Snow Queen” was promoted as a play centering on “interpersonal relationships” but the extent of the smartly written and emotionally layered content is truly remarkable. Gerda clearly expresses that her family does not care about her the way that they should in a number of terse, yet telling lines such as how she does not need to ask permission to eat dinner at Kay’s house and how she doubts her family will even notice her missing for extended periods of time.

This backstory--as vague as it seems--conveys why her close relationship to Kay and his loving Nana is so very important to her.

Watching the show from an adult perspective, it could be argued that the “glass” that enters Kay’s eye and heart (attributed to The Snow Queen) is an analogy for depression and the great lengths loved ones go to when someone they care for is afflicted with such a condition. Likewise, a creepy--yet seemingly sweet--woman who lives in a spring valley and is overly affectionate towards Gerda is clearly a warning sign against strangers and/or obsessive love and/or over-protectiveness.

Many of these themes obviously come directly from the original fairy tale since many of those stories notoriously contain “adult content” (usually warnings related to social situations or what we now term “strange danger”) masked as storybook elements, but Blessed Unrest expertly crafted them into their recent retelling. It is a clever move that keeps the story on-track and even more intriguing.

In fact, it is the hidden elements within the story (and the expert portrayal by the stellar cast) that will likely keep audience members of all ages thinking about them long after the show ended. Hence, it is a show that certainly warrants a revival.

Story, children, and layered content

Recently co-founders and driving forces behind the “Blessed Unrest” ensemble – writer Matt Opatrny and director Jessica Burr – discussed their experiences creating “The Snow Queen” and their feelings about its content.

Meagan Meehan (MM): What was it like to stage a fairly epic story like “The Snow Queen” with only six actors and very minimal props?

Blessed Unrest: We’ve been tackling impossible plays with little resources for seventeen years at Blessed Unrest, so in making this play we were right at home. We always look first to the performers and their bodies to create whatever world we need and prefer the challenge of that to solving things with elaborate sets or video projections. Costumes, lights, and sound play huge roles in this show and collaborating with Sydney Maresca, Jay Ryan, and Beth Lake is fantastic. Sam Vawter’s scenic design is simple and dramatic and gives plenty of room to the performers. Taking costumes as an example, some characters are quite elaborate, like the Snow Queen in her incredible twenty-foot dress, while others are super simple, like having a reindeer played by two shirtless men simultaneously using hand-held antlers! And you can make a river onstage with only lights and sound. When you have bold, strong, adventurous performers and innovative designers, you can make just about anything!

MM: The story has a lot of very deep meanings. For instance, it could even be argued that Kay’s mood change is symbolic of conditions such as depression. Do you think children pick up on these deeper and more realistic themes that are under the surface of the fairy tale? Moreover, as you developed the play, were you keenly aware of these multi-layered undertones?

BU: Yes, when we brought thirty fourth graders into the rehearsal room, we realized that they pick up on, and actively interpret, a lot more information than we commonly give them credit for. We found that children are more capable of comprehending and finding meaning in abstract performance and obscure narrative than most grownups we know. One of the things that drew us to tell this story was the complexity and subtlety of the challenge the protagonists face. Often villains are presented very simplistically: they are bad and must be fought and defeated. In “The Snow Queen” we see a villain that is unfeeling and causes others to be unfeeling, and the only way to combat that is through love and caring. That feels much more like the real problems we all face every day, like depression as you mentioned. This is a story that encourages kids to be bold and adventurous, to trust their instincts, to ask for help when they need it, and to approach challenges with love and compassion.

MM: The princess's dress is made up of numerous gowns, so who thought up that wonderfully whimsical design?

BU: Our brilliant costume designer, Sydney Maresca. We knew we weren't interested in a stereotypical pretty, ditzy princess, but in an intellectual one. Sydney came up with the idea that she embodies “Extreme Princess” on many levels and hence, the dress. There’s nothing straightforward about this princess!

MM: In the final scene, Gerda stares out at the audience intently as Kay sits with his aged grandmother, was there any suggestion of what she was thinking at the realization that she’d spent years searching for her friend? What do you think she was thinking at this moment?

BU: That’s a question every audience member has to answer for themselves. Gerda has completed the task she set out to accomplish. She’s brought Kay back home and reunited him with his Grandma. There is no celebratory parade, no grand wedding at the palace, no singing forest animals. It’s real. She’s done a huge thing for her friend, and the act of doing it has changed her profoundly. Now she has to move on. What she’s thinking and feeling at that moment is quite complex, and what she does next is up to each of us to figure out.

MM: You created this play in collaboration with a children’s theater, so what was it like to work with them?

BU: Amazing, the New Victory LabWorks is an incredible program that gave us vital support, feedback, and trust. They put no expectations on what we created or at what pace and supported our process of creation. They gave us space, time, and financial support, which took care of the three biggest obstacles to creating a new piece of theater. Part of our process was working with a class of fourth graders from P.S.3 as I mentioned before, and that was mind-blowing. These children were so smart, and fun, and engaged, and ready to go as deep and complex as we want to go. They appreciate humor in a way that adults sometimes resist, and find meaning and connection everywhere they look if you give them a chance. They were also harsh critics in the best way, and this play grew immensely because of their feedback.