Michael Sommers' newest work begins with a brief stop-action film to the tune of "I'm Hans Christian Andersen." The song comes from a sunny 1952 film in which Danny Kaye frolics through a fairy tale based loosely on the writer's life.
Moments later, scalding techno music washes the bouncy tune from our heads and we descend into Sommers' deconstruction of Andersen's psyche, which he calls "The Clumsy Man."
The new piece, now playing at Open Eye Figure Theatre, uses imagery, frantic movement choreographed by Kristin Van Loon, a physically adroit performance by Kimberly Richardson and a modern musical score by Dan Dukich to excavate Andersen's off-kilter personality. While certain moments score with poignancy and insight, "The Clumsy Man" feels overall like an elliptical frustration. Sommers, one of the great inquisitive and creative minds in Twin Cities theater, has taken this work out of his oven too early.
Andersen is known superficially as the author of beloved fairy tales (hence, the inspiration for that happy film). Closer inspection of those stories, though, reveal a shadowy edge. "The Little Mermaid" ends on a gruesome note. "The Little Match Girl" is terribly sad, and "The Emperor's New Clothes" sharply attacks aristocratic hypocrisy. Even though "The Nightingale" is warm and sentimental, it flowed from the pain of his unrequited passion for the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.
Andersen the man presents an even darker portrait. He felt his success should be more celebrated. His sense of himself mixed insecurity and vanity into a turbid stew. He wanted desperately to be loved and to love, yet died celibate and confused about his sexual identity.
"The Clumsy Man" intends to string together images that convey some of this psychological mess. Richardson slips her arm into the sleeve of an empty coat and hugs herself — an eerie and aching expression of Andersen's search for companionship, and finding only himself.
Donning wooden wings, she steps higher and higher to simulate flight — much like the swan who was once an "Ugly Duckling." Dreamlike (nightmarish) in its construction, Sommers' creation also shows Andersen wrestling with his sexuality and gazing at his mirrored reflection.
In totality, these pieces do not jell, and, at 90 minutes, "The Clumsy Man" still has too much chaff — indecipherable stuff that doesn't land with an audience. This is not a plea for literalness or even narrative discipline. It is, though, an argument that Sommers' presentation is not sharp enough to cut an enduring picture of Andersen.
The pieces are there in Richardson's work and Dukich's odd little songs and musical accompaniment. But just what Sommers has in mind when he considers Andersen as "The Clumsy Man" is yet to be defined. The mystery remains unsolved.