One fairy tale is a relatively unknown goblin story boys might love. One is an instantly recognized little-girl favorite about a mermaid.
The Rose Theater has combined “The Grocer's Goblin” and “The Little Mermaid,” both by Hans Christian Andersen, into a world-premiere showcase of creative originals that opens Friday.
As adapted by Brian Guehring, the Rose's award-winning playwright in residence, and director Stephanie Jacobson, both fairy tales will use puppetry, live action, video projection and special lighting techniques to bring alive the stories of loving, longing and growing up.
Jacobson, who worked for Jim Henson Studios in New York City as a puppet builder, loves “The Little Mermaid.” In early 2011, she suggested Guehring adapt it for the stage, using shadow puppets to depict the fluid, underwater world of mermaids in a way human actors can't.
Guehring worried that audiences would expect the familiar Disney version of the tale, which this isn't. He searched for and found another fairy tale he could weave together with “Mermaid.” As a bonus, “The Grocer's Goblin” has similar themes and also lends itself to puppetry. A three-dimensional Bunraku puppet plays the goblin, and its operators can be seen as they work (think “Avenue Q”).
The goblin secretly protects a grocery, stealing the grocer's wife's “gift of gab” and giving it to various objects in the store. Puppetry brings the objects to life. When a visiting student takes an interest in a book of stories in the grocery, the goblin discovers the creative treasure held in the book's pages — how stories feed the soul.
As the goblin gazes at the book, the tale of “The Little Mermaid” spills out and onto center stage, becoming a play within the play of “The Grocer's Goblin.” Shadow puppets and three giant video screens help bring it all to life.
The project was interrupted when Anderson moved to Chicago for a year and the Rose's longtime artistic director, James Larson, retired in spring 2012. Larson's successor, Matthew Gutschick, endorsed the project that fall.
While Guehring wrote, he and Jacobson developed the show's visual aspects with the help of New York City master puppeteer Eric Novak, lighting designer Kyle Toth, scenic designer Brad Carlson, projections designer Brittany Merenda and props master Liz Spray, who built the puppets.
Extensive workshopping, including a weeklong June visit by Novak, helped. So did having three full weeks on the Rose's main stage to work out the visuals, a luxury made possible by the holiday break between shows.
“This couldn't have happened without so many people bringing their talents and creative ideas together, to make it the most coherent and simple story it can be,” Jacobson said.