Llysa Holland and Andrew Litzky, co-founders of theater simple (militantly lower-case since 1990), are the sort of people who maintain my faith in theater. For nearly two decades they’ve been doing shows—sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with a loose cadre of “simpletons”— that prove great theater doesn’t require a huge budget, a great venue, or a well-funded staff. Sometimes it shows up in tiny black boxes, powered by nothing more than actors, imagination, and bold effects.
This improbably long-lived fringe company also routinely tackles original subjects, like an adaptation of The Master and Margarita, in which an obscure Russian dissident examines God, Jesus, and the Devil; a dissection of a half-mad playwright’s psyche (Strindberg in Paris); or a two-hander in which a deck of cards determines the story of a couple’s romance and its unhappy conclusion (52 Pick Up). Or, in the case of The Snow Queen: a fairy tale, but one told in such an unsentimental way it pays homage to the original’s adult sensibilities.
The version that’s going up this week at the Bathhouse has been substantially rewritten from the Hans Christian Andersen story that they performed (and I raved about) nine years ago, but it keeps faithful to the original’s disquieting and adult aspects. In the prologue, a devil makes a mirror that reflects false truths, and then is pleased when the mirror shatters and its fragments create even greater evil in the world. One of these shards pierces the heart of a girl’s best friend, causing him to lose his ability to love. The girl, Gerda, then embarks on a quest to save her friend from his thrall to the forbidding and emotionless Snow Queen. “It looks at love from a lot of different angles,” says Holland. “Family, friends, overwhelming mother love—how do you parse all of that emotion as a child? How do you differentiate what love is?”
Along the way, Gerda encounters several potential allies—talking crows, self-involved flowers, and a band of robbers—and as she tells and re-tells her story, she learns the lessons she needs to face her enemy. “Kids don’t need to listen to myths to know that monsters exist,” says Holland. “They know that. They want to know that monsters can be conquered.”
What’s both charming and affectingly theatrical about the simpletons’ adaptation is how they use five actors and a lot of cheap but clever tricks—quick-change costumes, bolts of fabric—to create this world. They toured area parks this summer and just returned from a couple of Canadian dates, and like all good touring productions the whole show can be packed up into a couple of crates. “We take a shoestring and then proceed to flog it,” is a favorite simpleton quote.
The simpletons’ addiction to touring has taken them to festivals across the country, as well as Canada, Australia (where they’ve won several “Best of Festival” awards), New Zealand, and Singapore. All this globetrotting unfortunately means that they’re not as well-known in Seattle as they could be. (“People in town recognize us, but they don’t know why,” says Holland.) That’s an odd situation for a company that works primarily with Seattle actors and maintains strong roots in the local theater community. But our fringe scene easily falls prey to occasional bouts of amnesia, particularly when the company in question has no venue of its own, and only sporadically performs locally.
Despite their relative obscurity in their hometown, they’re treated as conduits to our theater scene in the places they visit. “The vision of Seattle theater makers is actually pretty distinct, and folks in other places think it’s cool,” says Holland. “I mean, we’re considered kinda cool in Charleston and Adelaide.”
As for me, I find it cool that despite their makeshift budgets and their nonstop touring, they remain such pleasant people, and that they’re still happily married, an anomaly in the world of theater. Says Holland: “Being pathetically co-dependent really helps.”