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2006_02_arts_snowhen.jpgIt certainly felt appropriate to be seeing The Snow Hen last night, coming and going to the theater as I did dusted head to toe with snowflakes glittering in the Brooklyn streetlight. I thought, beforehand, that it might be topical in another way, too, namely that it’s “inspired by” a Norwegian folktale, "Jostedalsrypa," that originated in the mid-14th century, when over half of Norway’s population succumbed to the Black Death, so it wasn’t much of a mental stretch for me to say, hmm, maybe there will be commentary on bird flu hysteria…But, in the event, the play, which is the latest from The Debate Society, defied any expectations. That’s mostly a compliment – The Snow Hen is definitely not a typical show, and it does off-the-wall very well, but there are a number of sequences that left me, at least, grasping a little too frantically at straws of half-hidden meaning. Fortunately, Hannah Bos is radiant as the main character; she also co-wrote the play with Paul Thureen, who shows up about halfway through. Definitely don’t go to The Snow Hen expecting a charming resurrection of an old Scandinavian story, but if you’re interested in non-traditional theatre that does its best to make you feel awkward and question your assumptions and preferences, this will hit the spot.

In fact, for a good deal of the time as I was watching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the show that has always been for me the benchmark of the bizarre – Taylor Mead’s Spider Rabbit, which I saw a few years back and which has never yet been topped, at least in my theatergoing experience. Like Mead in his performance, Bos spends a long time picking up props (the funkily cluttered set is excellent) and doing unexpected things with them. The play opens with a feint to make you think you’re going to get that folktale: a great voice-over by Pamela Payton-Wright narrates the opening of the story of the little girl whose family left her behind, wrapped in her bed, when they were infected with the plague, so that she became her village’s sole survivor. From there on out, though, it’s a bobsled ride into seeming non sequiturs and plentiful “what the…?” moments.
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2006_02_arts_bosthureen.jpgBos – the Snow Hen (so named because of the chicken tail she suddenly sprouts after her family leaves) – has everything in her tiny hut labeled, and she’s a fanatic for cleaning spray, which she uses to, among other things, brush her teeth after accidentally getting a little white spray paint in her mouth (don’t ask), then chases that with five or six spoonfuls of sugar. She putters around like this for awhile, mostly silently (there are perhaps five full lines of speech in the whole play) going through the detritus of the world that has been lost to disease, random things that now form the basis for her own little version of reality. Thureen makes his impressive entrance (having arrived “by catapult”) cloaked in a Viking warrior-like get-up, including six-inch furry platform boots; the Snow Hen, used to living alone, is understandably scared and irritated at the intrusion, and not at all good at communication at the outset, but before long they are fast friends and more, labeling things together and sharing dry packaged ramen noodles (he doesn’t really get into cleaning spray, though, oddly).

Then again, it might all be a dream – at one point there’s a hint that the hen has gone to sleep and therefore what follows could just be the nightmare she’s supposed to have had; it’s not really clear. That’s the thing about the show, though – absurd as it seems most of the time, and even if everything were a dream, it’s oddly convincing – Bos makes you believe in the little isolated world she’s built up, she makes the Snow Hen’s experience legitimate. Thureen does a fine job as well, and the way the two interact with great chemistry, but he mostly follows her lead, which is to say off the deep end. It does feel at certain points that things have gone too far, too long, so you start questioning what’s happening onstage and feeling time drag. Obviously it’s not a snappy drama or plot-driven piece where you can imagine what the end is going to be, and this, again, is mostly to its credit, but in evoking the tedium and loneliness of being apparently the only two people in existence, living at the top of the earth where the sun comes out for just a few seconds each day, the play itself can become somewhat tedious. That’s par for the course, I suppose – as I already said, you shouldn’t go expecting to be conventionally entertained, but if you’re ready to just go with it, Bos and Thureen will take you on a ride that’s sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and always weird, and you will be glad to have gone along.

The Snow Hen is at Charlie Pineapple Theater, 248 N. 8th St. in Brooklyn, through Feb. 25. Shows are Wed.-Sat. 8pm, Mon. 7pm, Sun. 3pm. Tickets via Theatermania.