Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Once Upon a Winter Night
Open Eye Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Something Happened in Our Town and The Mousetrap

Lizz Windnagel
Photo by Bruce Silcox
Once Upon a Winter Night is a beautifully rendered show at Open Eye Theatre that bills itself as a "chamber symphony for piano, cello voice and puppet theater." Running under an hour, the show is a feast for the eyes and ears. It offers ethereal original music by Eric Jensen, compositions that bring to mind the theater scores of Michael John LaChiusa. Jensen himself is the pianist, and Alma Engebretson the cellist, both bringing the music to crystalline life. The voice is from the throat of Lizz Windnagel who enters early on to light the candles on an ornate candelabra posed upon the piano, then returns seven more times, each time with another song, after which a candle is extinguished until there are no more.

The puppets are a delight to the eye, inventively designed and deftly handled by Dylan Rickard, Noah Sommers Haas, and Kallie Melvin. The main characters portrayed by the puppets are a spirited young girl asleep in a bell tower; Sister Winter, the spirit of the season, who is deems it time to melt and run into the sea where she can become something new; and a ragged looking snow fox–in several sizes to offer perspective as it trots upon more distant hills. Sister Winter dispatches the fox to aid in capturing the girl's warmth in order to promote the melting she desires. The detail of these creations and their movements is constantly delightful.

We are also treated to a beleaguered snowman, with its arms made of what look like vacuum cleaner hoses; the aforementioned bell tower, bursting out from the "snow globe" and reaching toward the sky; a fish–or perhaps it is a dolphin; the sun, animated around the head of its puppeteer; and a frozen water pump.

Looking down upon the tale being told are two crows, one on either upper corner of the puppet stage, who comment upon the action, cracking jokes and casting aspersions in the manner of the elderly gentlemen Statler and Waldorf in the old "Muppet Show." The are quite entertaining, if you like jokes along the lines of: "Oh, there's a cello! I hope there is a cello solo–meaning it's played so low that I can't hear it." Sorry to give that one away, but there are lots more.

There are delightful bits of puppetry, and the space they perform in is fashioned as a luminous snow globe, lit with candles, icicles dripping down from its rims. A cold winter moon hangs in the sky behind the snow globe. The beautifully designed set is the work of Michael Sommers, who conceived and directed the piece. Sommers and Noah Sommers Haas designed the wonderful puppets, which garnish the taste of fairy-tale characters with a slice of irony.

With so much beauty and charm and invention delighting the eyes and ears, it is regrettable that the tale being told is very difficult to follow. I found myself uncertain throughout most of the play what the little girl, Sister Winter, and the fox were intending by their specific actions, though the overall gist of the story is clear. A recurring pronouncement that blood will fall upon the snow led me to expect a cathartic moment to arrive, but when blood eventually flowed (tastefully depicted), I could not make sense of the cause. The songs, though exquisitely sung, help little as it is difficult to make out most of the lyrics.

It is understandable that the creative team intended their story to stand on its own, but perhaps a framing device in the form of a storyteller to set each scene and introduce the characters would help sort out the narrative. As it now stands, Once Upon a Winters Night is worth seeing for its terrific puppetry, lofty music, and overall calming effect as it proffers the depletion of a long winter. If in search of a clear and compelling narrative, you may find yourself disappointed.

Once Upon a Winter Night plays through March 20, 2022, at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $26.00; Students: $18.00; Industry Night, March 14: $18.00; Children 12 and under: $12.00; a limited number of economic accessibility tickets available in advance at $10.00. If not sold out, a limited number of unsold seats will be available as "Pay as You Can." For tickets and information, please visit or call 612-874-6338. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Conceived and Directed by: Michael Sommers; Original Music Composed by: Eric Jensen; Puppet Design: Noah Sommers Haas and Michael Sommers; Puppet Direction: Noah Sommers Haas; Scenic Design: Michael Sommers; Costume Design: Claire Looker; Lighting Design: Bill Healey; Dramaturg: Josef Evans; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz; Stage Manager: Penny Laden Kissenger; Producer: Joel Sass.

Cast: Noah Sommers Hass, Kallie Melvin, Rylan Rickard, Lizz Windnagel

Musicians: Alma Engebretson (cello), Eric Jensen (piano).