PROVO — As it is presented on the BYU Margetts stage, Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Nightingale is an experience full of visual enchantment and theatrical fun. This adaptation by Timothy Mason and directed by Julia Ashworth and Kori Wakamatsu is meant to be presented to children, which is apparent in many of the stylistic choices. Still, the story itself is meaningful and layered with profound political and social currents that speak to adults. This fusion makes the piece a unique blend of components that give it an appeal for the whole family.
The plot follows the emperor of China and a group of his servants on a quest to find a nightingale in the forest. Drawn to the bird by the sounds of its incredible songs, they are surprised to find that the bird is altogether plain for the eye to behold. Regardless they take the bird home to the palace and present it to the Emperor, who is immediately bewitched by her striking music. The nightingale becomes his constant companion until the Emperor is presented with a mechanical nightingale—a metal machine that plays the same song over and over again. A number of events proceed from there, but it is not until the Emperor’s deathbed that he at last realizes the irreplaceable value of the real nightingale and her distinctive melodies that cannot be manufactured.
The deliberate focus of the directors and cast is evident in this play’s very synchronized and tight presentation of the story. The narrator explains at the outset that in this Chinese style of storytelling few words are used—most of the action will be shown through dance and gesture. According to the narrator, the use of carefully chosen music is also of great importance to this type of theater.
The Narrator (Cosette Hatch) and the Witch (Jennifer Bozeman) stuck out to me on account of their dedication to the unique Asian style of storytelling. Both exhibited a confidence in their turns and movements that allowed their energy to exude throughout the theater, drawing all eyes into the space they occupied. With small bits of humor and welcoming attempts to reach out to the audience—inviting them to play along, Hatch brought warmth that was critical for the overall mood of the production. I found myself disappointed that Bozeman’s character was only a minor part of the overall story. Each time the Witch was on stage, I found myself spellbound and delightfully spooked by her eerie physical and facial choices.
Unfortunately, the Nightingale herself was the character I felt faltered most noticeably. The actor Nicole Dugdale is a remarkable dancer; and the heartwarming story makes it difficult not to love the character of the Nightingale. But something lacked in Dugdale’s presence, there was insincerity about the performance I couldn’t quite pinpoint. It was as though she was a marionette who had been given steps and motions but was not truly fulfilling them, was not breathing life into the movement. There were times when ensemble members also echoed this same struggle of not truly owning their parts.
Still, the movements enacted by the Nightingale and all of the actors, marionette-like in presentation or not, were themselves magnificent.They were the true foundation of this piece. There was great use of both recognizable gesture and symbolic motion, the combination of which guided the audience through an unfamiliar style of theater without patronizing to them. The directors should be very proud of this element of the work. I was refreshed and rewarded by viewing a type of theater completely foreign to Provo.
This production will be performed throughout this fall at elementary schools around Utah County. This gives university students the opportunity to teach young children through story and discuss the narrative with them in feedback discussions and lessons after the show. Even with a young target audience, this is a work that parents and younger siblings will also benefit from seeing. So pack up the kids and head out for family night because this show will be worth the trip. BYU’s production of The Nightingale is a a great opportunity for parents and children to discuss theater as well as messages about culture and materialism. Even as a grownup you might gain something from the performance. I know I did.