Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2008
Throughout my childhood, my family made the two hour drive between our homes in New York City and northwestern Connecticut every weekend. My parents never forgot the time when I was about three, that I started to tell them a story as we left the city and did not say “The End” until we were nearly at our destination. It was one of those “and then…” stories that little children tell. No one in the family, including me, could remember what the heck the story was about, but we never forgot my telling it.
Letters from a Window in the Sky by Mary Jane Hansen is one of those “and then…” stories, told by a young Swedish woman named Cicilia (Cicilia Sedvall) about her adventures with a talking duck named Mr. Magnus Nilsson (voiced by David Bunce and operated by Andy Smith). It is a colorful, exciting story that takes the pair around the world by land, sea, and air, punctuated by pleasant little songs, some of which use traditional tunes and some penned by Hansen and Will Severin. The many children in the audience of which I was a part seemed to like it very much. As an adult, I was left dazed and mystified by it all, but I can’t say I didn’t have fun.
If this were just a happy piece of children’s theatre, I would have nothing to quibble about, but this work was commissioned by Teater Västmanland in Västeras, Sweden, with whom NYSTI has collaborated since 2003, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of author Astrid Lindgren's birth, and more than 60 years of international stardom for her creation, Pippi Longstocking. As an adult member of the audience I should come away knowing something more about Lindgren, Pippi, and/or Sweden, right?
Well, I didn’t. In fact I found the random references to Lindgren in the script to be downright confusing. And I was equally confused by the identity of the heroine. She was not a child. She was not Astrid Lindgren. She was not Pippi Longstocking, but for much of the show she looked like she was. She also impersonated other characters in the story – were all or some of them also Lindgren creations? If so, I wanted to know more about them so I could learn more about the author.
According to Sedvall, in Sweden Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) is “holy.” She lived 94 years and was a prolific writer, one of the most important authors of children’s literature in the 20th century. In America we are barely cognizant of the depth and breadth of her work. She also worked for animal and human rights and fought excessive taxation. There is one tax joke in the show that is hilariously funny but in no way connects with or enlightens us about Lindgren in any way.
And at the end of the Second World War, a time when women were particularly repressed in western society, Lindgren went and created the original Super Girl – Pippi Longstocking. Pippi lived outside all adult and societal strictures and was tremendously physically strong in the bargain. Who said the Spice Girls invented Girl Power?? Readers all over the world love Pippi, and I have no doubt that the little girls who grew up worshipping her are a good deal better equipped to deal with the real world than wusses like me who idolized submissive Sara Crewe in “A Little Princess.”
I am always wary of work that has been translated from another language because I know that I am missing something. I know that there are ideas and jokes that just don’t translate. Letters from a Window in the Sky has not been translated, it was written in English, but I got the same feeling watching it as I do when attending works by Moliere or Chekhov or Ibsen. There are many, many things here that a Swedish audience would get that pass me right by. And there are many things that would delight me were I more thoroughly versed in the works of Astrid Lindgren. Which brings up that age old question of how much a playwright can presume his or her audience already knows about a subject. If your intended audience is 6-10 years old, the answer should be “not much.”
Since this work was commissioned by a Swedish theatre, Hansen must have written it for a Swedish audience, which probably explains that “outsider looking in” feeling I got watching it. As of this writing there are no plans to translate the show and present it in Sweden. In the NYSTI Study Guide Hansen describes the other restrictions on her writing: “…I was writing this play with so many requirements: had to be a certain length, had to be for one actress, I had to be mindful of copyright issues regarding Astrid Lindgren’s books, and the age of the audience - I had to listen to and really try to collaborate with the various entities.” Not an easy task, obviously.
I think the bottom line is that Hansen has succeeded in writing a charming piece of children’s theatre, that would be especially appealing to a Swedish audience and/or an audience of Astrid Lindgren scholars; but she has failed to write a play that informs an American audience about Lindgren and her work.
Sedvall is a longtime member of Teater Västmanland and this is both her first solo show and the first time she has performed a work entirely in English. She does an excellent job of holding the young audience’s attention and her gentle Swedish accent is charming. I particularly loved the way she pronounced “Mister Nilsson.” She is called upon to be athletic, musical, and versatile while climbing in and out of costumes and over and under props and scenery – all the while relating to the various incarnations of Mr. Nilsson the duck (who gets his own headshot in the program.) He is a different times a hand puppet, a radio-controlled unit (I suspect a toy car lurks under those fake feathers), and an aerial version on a wire. Because Bunce can see the stage, his dialogue is synched perfectly to Sedvall’s antics.
Letters from a Window in the Sky is being presented in the James L. Meader Little Theatre, not the Schacht Fine Arts Center, which created several challenges for the design team according to the Study Guide, but you would never know it watching the show. Sets, lights, sound, etc. are all up to NYSTI’s high standard of professionalism. Set designer Richard Finkelstein researched Scandinavian design and came up with a set that has the feel of that region’s clean lines combined with bright primary colors that Skip Mercier carries over into his clever and versatile costumes. The central set piece is a semi-circular set of monkey bars that Sedvall is discovered hanging upside down from as the lights come up. Mercier’s costumes layer to enable Sedvall to quickly morph from character to character modestly in full view of the audience.
If you are an adult Astrid Lindgren fan, you will probably get a big kick out of this show whether or not you take a child with you, but I would encourage you to take one or two tykes along because good children’s theatre is hard to find and this is good children’s theatre.
The Teater Västmanland production of Letters from a Window in the Sky: A Tribute to Astrid Lindgren and Pippi, presented by the New York State Theatre Institute, runs through June 20 in the James L. Meader Little Theatre on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The performance I saw ran about an hour and fifteen minutes. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children 6 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008