Nils Holgersson, the boy who goes flying on the back of a goose, is so well known in Sweden that there's a picture of him riding on a goose on the back of the Swedish 20-krona banknote.
David Bazemore

It’s little known in America, but Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, first published in Sweden in 1906, is a classic fable. It’s the tale of a hateful boy who flies to Lapland on the back of a goose, and it’s got it all: moral dilemmas, an epic journey, supernatural powers, mortal danger, and, ultimately, redemption.

All that makes it an inspired choice for Lit Moon, Santa Barbara’s experimental theater company and host to a biannual world theater festival. This season, director John Blondell has partnered with Finland’s Tampereen Teatteri to create an original stage production of the story based on Naomi Iizuka’s adaptation. The set consists of nothing but nine suspended frames: windows onto a blue sky streaked with clouds. Yet on the stage below, world after vivid world unfolds.

Lagerlöf wrote the fable as a way to educate Swedish school children about their country’s flora and fauna, and her words paint vivid scenes of forests and fjords. Yet it’s Blondell’s inspired direction that lifts this captivating story into the realm of magic. When Nils (Mitchell McLean) captures an elf (Peter Duda), he clasps his tiny prey in his hands and shakes it while Duda lies on the ground beside him writhing. In an instant, one’s ordinary sense of scale melts away.

Little boys who kick dogs and set the tails of cats on fire get cut down to size eventually, and once the elf shrinks Nils in vengeance, the world is a new and humbling place, one where an owl (Kate Paulsen) is a towering predator, and the family cat (Marie Ponce) now threatens to rip him to pieces. Each cast member morphs wonderfully into a host of animals, embodying a squirrel’s nervous darting, a seagull’s raucous cry, and a chained dog’s slobbering growl. As Martin, the barnyard gander who becomes Nils’s first friend, Stan Hoffman is almost unbearably wonderful, wobbling on flat feet and honking forlornly. Victoria Finlayson leads the wild geese in a haunting, graceful adagio dance that represents synchronized flight.

All this gets carried along by James Connolly’s original score, played live on double bass. Like the little boy sitting in front of me, I wanted in turns to laugh out loud, then to whimper, then to crawl into my mother’s lap and feel the incomparable comfort of coming home.


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