- The Little Mermaid
Mike Kenny’s stage adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, first performed in 2005 by York Theatre Royal and Polka Theatre in London, adapts Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale of the same name, but nods at the legacy created by Walt Disney Pictures’ 1989 animated film with the naming of the characters. The play imagines how children living in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the time of the publication of Andersen’s fairy tale would have told the little mermaid’s story. In September 2007 the Honolulu Theatre for Youth in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, performed Kenny’s The Little Mermaid under the wonderful direction of Eric Johnson.
The play tells the story of Flotsam and Jetsam, two children who enact Andersen’s story while playing on a pier. The characters share their names with the eel-minions created by Disney for Ursula the sea-witch. But the actual definitions of these names (wreckage and discarded cargo floating in the sea) are reflected by the sea debris that Flotsam and Jetsam use as props to tell their story. For the Honolulu production, the Tenney Theatre itself was dressed in debris for the performance—netting and life preservers adorning the walls, which enfolds the audience into the play space of the “child” actors. In the Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s production, performed by adults Mary Wells (Flotsam) and Herman [End Page 200] Tesoro Jr. (Jetsam), the play creates an enchanting scene that emulates the very best qualities and experiences of storytelling: using one’s imagination and living in the story being told at the moment of telling.
Kenny’s The Little Mermaid retells Andersen’s story with a few subtle, and one not-so-subtle, changes. In Andersen’s story a young mermaid fascinated by the human world and the human concept of an immortal soul sets out to obtain a soul for herself. Her method of doing so is to win the love of a human prince who will share his soul with her upon marriage. Her transformation into a human so that she can act on this plan comes with a high price: she must give up her voice to the sea-witch, who cuts out her tongue. While Andersen’s human prince certainly cares for the little mermaid, he does not marry her. Upon the prince’s marriage to a princess of a neighboring land, the little mermaid is left with the dilemma of killing the prince to save herself or dying. The little mermaid chooses death, throwing herself into the sea. In Andersen’s incongruous and overly moralistic ending, the little mermaid is saved, in a sense, and turned into one of the daughters of the air because of her sacrifice and good deeds. In Kenny’s retelling, the little mermaid desires love, not a soul, and is left as foam on the sea. In a move that many adults suspicious of Andersen’s ending will applaud, Kenny rejects Andersen’s moral and ends his play as Flotsam and Jetsam deal with their grief over the loss of the fictional mermaid.
Andersen’s rich descriptions of the land- and seascapes are delightfully portrayed through the imagination of Flotsam and Jetsam (and the audience). Under Johnson’s direction, small cylindrical floats become fish; nets become long, flowing hair; a jacket stands in for the prince; a shell necklace denotes the little mermaid; and a broken rowboat and oars become the sea-witch. Single props stand in for multiple objects in this play, highlighting the creativity and remarkable vision central to children’s play—the floats used for the fish are also stand-ins for boats that rock on the great swells during a storm, and the waves are the same net-and-wire trap used as the grandmother’s hat.
Flotsam and Jetsam share the storytelling, taking in turn the roles of the narrator, grandmother, sea-witch, sisters, prince, and the little mermaid. The switching of roles is performed seamlessly by Wells and Tesoro, who inflect the secondary...