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The House Theatre of Chicago has little interest in producing traditional plays. The previous productions it has taken to the Adrienne Arsht Center — such as The Sparrow, about a girl who develops special powers after surviving a tragic bus accident, and the sold-out engagements of Death and Harry Houdini, a flavorful biography of the daredevil magician — have integrated music, choreography, literal smoke and mirrors, and, in the case of Houdini, live magic and audience interaction.
The House's plays have plenty of spunk and innovation. And in Rose and the Rime, which opens this weekend at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater, those moving parts will reach the sky: In the middle of the piece, Paige Collins, who portrays the heroine, Rose, will soar above the audience.
"There's a ton of movement in this play," Collins says. "It's a real workout. It's 90 minutes of running around and jumping and getting lifted. And in the middle, there's a bit of flying, so there's dealing with rigs and everybody being in their place and making sure it's going to go smoothly.
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"I was a bit afraid [of flying], but once you've worked with people for a little while, you can trust that everyone has your back and that the equipment is really safe, and it just becomes really fun. The first couple of times were a little nerve-wracking."
Her character has good reason to fly. When it comes to single-handedly saving your entire community, you can't let gravity bring you down. Rose and the Rime is set in the fictional town of Radio Falls, Michigan, which has been trapped in a perpetual winter for a generation, thanks to a curse by the Rime Witch, an evil entity lurking in the remote mountains. Only Rose can lift the curse, thanks to her discovery of the witch's magic coin — but she finds that the coin has two sides.
With its coming-of-age tween protagonist, Rose and the Rime has been described as a play families can enjoy. But expect it to straddle the same border between comedy and tragedy that the House's previous works have balanced so successfully. Though you're watching a parable about suffering and resentment and an oppressive winter that never ends, you're seeing it play out with love songs, live sax music, dances with snow shovels, and flying characters.
"Rose starts out jubilant and joyous, without any knowledge there is something else out there for her," Collins says. "And slowly there's this sort of descent into some kind of darkness, and that's really fun — to choose the moments when both [the light and dark] can come out."
"Like good theater artists, or because we all trained as actors, we tend to take our dramas very seriously and really hold onto the darker considerations about human nature and temptation and desire," adds House member Chris Mathews, who wrote the play with Nathan Allen — its director — and Jake Minton. "We take those more seriously than maybe we should, but we also have to realize that you can't dwell on that too much and that it needs to be balanced with some good chuckles. We don't want to get lost in the mire of that pathos."
The House premiered Rose and the Rime in its 2008-09 season. But last year, its writers revisited the piece, developing more-elaborate staging and choreography and rewriting the dialogue to reflect the creators' maturation.
"It's the same story and basically the same plot, but the dialogue is a little more grown-up, and the relationship between Rose and her surrogate father is informed by our experience of having kids," Allen says. "We got this fun criticism from Peter Sagal, who hosts Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on NPR. We're always killing children in our plays and doing this Grimm fairy-tale sort of stuff — The Sparrow has all those kids dying. Peter said, 'You have no idea what you're putting your audience through when you do that.' Now, when we can revisit a story like Rose and have some experience with kids, I think we're more sensitive to it."
That said, "We're always guarded against sterilizing anything. We don't want to CG the guns out of E.T. or anything. We want to make sure we honor the danger and the horror of that spirit. Now, I think we just do it better, because we understand most fears more."
At the time of these interviews, snow is falling on the House Theatre's home base of Chicago, a mid-April anomaly that suggests a bit of the Rime Witch's never-ending winter bleeding into real life. Miami is looking pretty attractive to Allen and Mathews, who both express their enthusiasm for the opportunity to remount Rose in the Magic City.
"The gift of knowing that we're not done yet, that we still get to play with a show and give it another life down in Miami, really boosts our spirits," Mathews says. "It's a reward for all of our hard work up here."