The Empire's New Clothes
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
November 21, 2008
"Who's pulling the wool over whose eyes?" says an ensemble member of Synaesthetic Theatre Company in their brilliant new look at Hans Christian Andersen's tale of deception and vanity, The Empire's New Clothes. It is true that when we think of this story we usually think about the emperor's vanity but do we ever consider that maybe the clothes are there? Or do we ever consider that the manner in which the deceptive tailors push their product is no different than our current forms of advertising? Well, the folks at Synaesthetic consider these angles on the story and many more.
The story is told in stylized fragments that bring into view the many different perspectives of the characters of the original story. We see the perspective of the con-artist tailors, the emperor's ministers, the nameless masses, and others. Notably missing is the emperor's perspective.
It begins with a single actor delivering a monologue about the trial of the tailors in a thick Cockney accent. The scene ends and the theatrical lights fade out and brighter, sort-of work lights come on and the director/ensemble member stands up and says, "Ok that was good but can you try working on your pronunciation." "But it's Cockney!" he replies. Then the director calls for places for the next scene and the music cue and they launch into it. It made me feel like I was watching a finely tuned performance of a rehearsal and I really enjoyed the raw quality that this brought to the fine tuning. They don't do this for every scene and that is an excellent choice because it would have worked against them, breaking the mood they work so hard to create. Throughout the performance there is elegant movement and interpretive dance that accompanies much of the spoken word. They describe their style as disparate and it certainly is that. They blend a number of styles and conventions to create something all their own and it really works for them.
The ensemble is a tight group of very creative and talented performers. Made up of Kym Bernazky, Ted Hannan, Alexandra Gray, Michael Makowski, Margaret O'Sullivan, Heather Lee Rogers, and Carla Stangenberg, they collectively create the text and movement. Directors Suchan Vodoor and Tina West set a mellow, introspective, and graceful tone for this production. Many of the simplest movements are highly stylized and physically challenging. They often use ensemble members as furniture. Words are associated with gestures and the gestures become symbols of the whole scene. There is never a moment when there is not something captivating to watch on stage.
The production crew adds even more eye candy to this show. The lights (Kate Furst) are dark, colorful, and set at low angles. The sound (John Baird) is a constant undercurrent that fades in and out of many different styles matching the disparity of the company's style. The costumes (David Crittenden) are bizarre collages of unitards, lingerie, long johns, lace, and chiffon.
The Empire's New Clothes is a short but well worth it. The show is very timely in that it offers a main street perspective at a time when our leaders allow an economic bubble to balloon up until it bursts and then claim that they never saw it. But you should make it a point to see this. And maybe our leaders should too.