Last year, the Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng provided one of the Lincoln Center Festival’s genuine delights with
The Orphan of Zhao, an American recension of a traditional Chinese play, with a text by David Greenspan and songs by the rock musician Stephin Merritt. This year, Chen tried a more complex leap across a series of cultures, celebrating Hans Christian Andersen’s centennial with a piece that tried to weld Andersen’s life to his tales, imagistically, with a text by Erik Ehn and a full-scale score by Merritt, plus an international all-female cast headed by Fiona Shaw as Andersen. The moral of the two experiments is either that less is more, or that narrative and Greenspan are necessary elements to Chen’s work, for the new piece,
My Life as a Fairy Tale, was a barely mitigated disaster.
Ehn’s text, elliptical and prissily self-conscious, seemed bent on destroying rather than building cross-cultural bridges as it went on its scattershot way, muddling the Little Mermaid with Andersen’s adoration of Jenny Lind and confusing the Emperor of the New Clothes with the one of the Nightingale, so that no story was well or completely told, rather in the manner of
Seussical. Chen’s visual inventions—a procession of wheeled toys, giant balloons with people inside—tended to drift arbitrarily across the stage during lulls in the text. Even through the badly rigged sound system, it was clear that Merritt’s songs, strophic and jauntily rhymed, were the most interesting part of the occasion. Unfortunately, the cast, which also included Blair Brown, Mary Lou Rosato, Mia Maestro, and Qian Yi, tended to carry the tunes perfunctorily rather than musically. Rosato, incisive of song as of speech, was the exception. Left alone onstage to tell Andersen’s tales, or sing Merritt’s songs, she might have made something of the evening.