Experimental Theater at the National Theater, Taipei
April 2, 2016
Eighteen months ago, I described Arthur Pita’s telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Little Match Girl as an absolute joy. Seeing it again brings exactly the same response. The story of Fiammetta Russo, the young girl struggling to sell her matches on Christmas Eve so she can afford some food and shelter, is still sad and heartrending, yet warm and uplifting in equal measure.
Pita relocates the story to a cold and snowy Santo Stefano sul Tuscio, an imaginary Italian city brought to life by Yann Seabra’s set, a mix of the full-size and miniature. Wandering its streets, fresh-faced and light on her feet, Faith Prendergast was a delight as the Little Match Girl. Always vulnerable, and despite her travails, her youthful optimism shines through. Her dance in particular is reminiscent of Onna White’s choreography for Carol Reed’s film of Oliver Twist, full of sharp turns, snappy heels and free leaps. Despite the story being shifted to Italy, Seebra’s great costumes too hint at a Dickensian world.
Many of Andersen’s stories have dark sides. This is no different and Pita doesn’t shy away from the crueller aspects. Although briefly befriended by a lamplighter (Paul Smethurst), with she dances are duet that makes some creative use of his pole, everyone else seems against young Fiammetta. The townsfolk turn off their lights when she knocks on their doors, and she’s set upon by two match boys who bully her, they assault and rob her, taking her shoes and matches, and tying her to a lamppost.
Apart from Prendergast, everyone plays multiple roles, switching costumes and character brilliantly. Worst of all those Fiammetta has the misfortune to run across are the unpleasant Donnarumma family. Dressed up to the nines, they have everything – except any charity for the Match Girl. Although they start off looking quite humorous, the slightly grotesque threesome really are an unpleasant piece of work. There’s a bit of a hint of Cinderella and her two ugly sisters as the Match Girl is picked on. Worst of the family is the spoiled brat of a daughter, Angelica (Valentina Golfieri). Unfortunately for her, the Match Girl makes the mistake of being a bit too persistent in trying to sell to them
Having died in front of her grandmother’s grave, the ghost of her grandmother rather emerges from the gravestone and takes the Match Girl – not to heaven – but, in an unexpected twist, to the moon. Here, Pita has great fun with an Apollo mission-style lunar module and a radio-controlled lunar buggy. The smiles of the audience only increase with a gentle, neat weightless duet for Hank the easy-going astronaut and heroine. Those smiles turn to laughs when the departing lunar module refuses to start. It’s amazing what a match can do!
From the corner and surrounded by numerous instruments, composer Frank Moon keeps up a great combination of live and pre-recorded music and sound effects using mandolin, electric violin, beatbox and goodness knows what else, always helping carry the story along. With his black shadowed eyes, black topper and dark coat, he also adds another layer of interest.
While this enchanting gem of a show is of course suitable for children, it’s not a solely children’s show. It will reach out and touch everyone