John Blondell's staging of The Wonderful World of Nils, with the Lit Moon cast. (Photo by Brad Elliott)
The Wonderful Adventures of Nils: Nils Holgersson may not be a familiar name to most people in the U.S. But ask most anyone in Europe, especially in one of the Nordic countries, and they'll explain that he's an ill-behaved lad who mended his ways after flying to Lapland on the back of a goose. (Only, of course, after he'd been shrunk to Thumbelina proportions by a vengeful elf. Come on, now—who ever heard of a goose lifting a grown boy?) For more than a century, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils has taught Swedish students about the geography and wildlife of their country, imparting lessons on bravery and kindness along the way. It was penned by the first female winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Selma Lagerlöf. California director John Blondell—a distant Lagerlöf relation via his paternal great-grandmother—decided this was the story he wanted to tell in his Lit Moon Theatre Company's first co-production with Tampereen Teatteri in Finland. Blondell chose Los Angeles playwright Naomi Iizuka to do the honors of adaptation. "It spoke to the fabulist in her," he explains. "She is wonderful with this kind of material—in the creation of poetic, earthy plays that are at once contemporary and mythic." Iizuka's deceptively simple script prompts its cast to use animal physicality in exploring fundamental questions of human life. Nils played in Santa Barbara in September with a U.S. cast, and this month it opens in Tampere with Finnish actors, again under Blondell's direction, and will become a part of Tampereen Teatteri's repertory. The set design for both productions is by Finland's Marjatta Kuivasto, while costume design and musical composition are by Lit Moon's Jaco Connolly and James Connolly, respectively.
Tampereen Teatteri's resident director and literary manager, Mikko Viherjuuri, served as the translator for this co-production, as well as its catalyst. Blondell first met the Finnish director/dramaturg around 2005 when Viherjuuri launched a vigorous ambassador program called "Find a Fine Finnish Play," supported by the Finnish Theater Information Center of Helsinki, aimed at brokering the first-ever staging of a Finnish play at a major U.S. theatre. Lit Moon hosted a small festival of contemporary Finnish plays in Santa Barbara in 2007, but it's NYC in which Viherjuuri's end goal will be reached this February, when Zishan Ugurlu directs young Finnish playwright Sofi Oksanen's tense look at post-Soviet Estonia, Purge, at La MaMa E.T.C.
Blondell is openly covetous of the environment in which Finnish artists operate. "They have a tremendous theatre culture, and an amazing support network for new plays," he says (indeed, the country holds the record for per capita ticket sales, selling 3 million seats annually in a country of 5 million people). He adds that, unlike in much of director-obsessed Europe, Finland's theatre revolves around its playwrights. In the 2007 festival, Blondell directed Finnish scribe Laura Ruohonen's Queen C, and he flags that historical drama, along with the gritty scripts of Sirkku Peltola, the popular comic pieces of Mika Myllyaho and the "carnivalesque" writing of Leea Klemola, as work at which his fellow American directors should take a closer look. (Opening Nov. 11; (358) 3-2160-111; www.tampereenteatteri.fi)
International Theatre Festival of Kerala: For the third year in a row, the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi—a government-funded arts organization founded in the late 1950s—organizes a theatre festival with a specific international focus. This year, it will feature seven plays from Latin American countries, including Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba. Groups from London, Japan, Spain and Russia will round out the international component, but there will also be 19 contemporary Indian plays on offer, along with a fringe festival of short works. Five venues in Thrissur will accommodate some 1,200 audience members each day. (Dec. 22-31; (91) 487-232-7427; www.theatrefestivalkerala.com)
Festival di Morgana: It's the 35th time this event will be hosted by Antonio Pasqualino International Puppetry Museum in Sicily. Its filo rosso, or "red thread," is the story of Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love). Last year's throughline was Orlando furioso—the famous 16th-century poem by Ludovico Ariosto about a paladin who goes mad with love for the Eastern princess Angelica—and now the festival is stepping back to the 15th-century poem by Matteo Maria Boiardo that inspired Ariosto. Love and war echo throughout the productions, concerts and discussions on the program, including the premiere of a new production by Sicily's own Vincenzo Pirrotta, called Boiardo: l'amore, la guerra e la morte. A number of Italian companies whose specialties range from "theatre of sound" to animation and puppetry will perform; in addition, the museum is sponsoring performances at theatres throughout Sicily that still practice the traditional popular art of opera dei pupi, in which chivalric stories are enacted by large wooden puppets in full armor that can weigh from 20 to 60 pounds. Plus, Festival di Morgana will explore Orlando through another traditional theatrical genre, this one from the northern Emilia-Romagna region of Italy: the maggio epico, in which a narrative is presented through elaborately stylized song. (Nov. 5-21; (39) 91-328060; www.museomarionettepalermo.it)
International Festival of Finno-Ugric Peoples: For 10 or so millennia, speakers of Finno-Ugric languages have lived in Europe. Only since 1992, however, have they had their own theatre festival. There are an estimated 25 million individuals speaking Finno-Ugric languages, living in such countries as Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Sweden and Russia—comprising distinct peoples with varying histories, but a shared linguistic link. The preservation of their traditions is the goal of this intermittent gathering, the seventh of which occurs this month at the Mari National Drama Theater. Performances include the host theatre with the lyrical comedy Sanya, Vanya and Rimas; Finland Puppet Theatre with the Mari folktale Jykserge the Swan Boy; Meridian Theatre of Hungary with Life After Leevra, a mobster thriller with cinematic elements; and Norway's Saami National Theater with the comedy Guksin Guollemuorran (The Whole Caboodle). That last piece is performed by the writer/actor Sara Margrethe Oskal in her native Saami language; but she delivers Russian subtitles via PowerPoint, weaving the translation into her improvisational "jester" style of delivery. Oskal notes on her website that—requiring nothing more than a new set of slides to be accessible to any number ofÂ audiences—Caboodle has great potential for international touring. (Nov. 17-28; (7) 8362-63-00-18; www.shketan.ru/festival.php)