On January 9th, 10th and 11th in Schaeffer Theater, Figures of Speech Theater presented the world premiere of The Little Match Girl Passion. Originally a composition of percussion and voices written by David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion brings Christian Anderson’s story of The Little Match Girl and J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion to life.

“It totally started with the music,” said Carol Farrell, the co-founder of Figures of Speech Theater. She is also the costume designer, the costume shop supervisor and a lecturer at Bates College. Carol and John Farrell, the co-founders and the artistic directors of Figures of Speech Theater, were looking for music to work with that will connect them to symphonies, and they were introduced to this music by a good friend of theirs. Being a piece for a small ensemble of voices and percussion made it inapt for connecting with symphonies, but “it hit me so hard, and I just fell in love with the music,” John Farrell said. David Lang’s work on The Little Match Girl Passion resonated with what they wanted to do in their work, which is “layering meaning by juxtaposing different forms and producing something truly brilliant and beautiful.” This became the platform on which Figures of Speech Theater is based.

Figures of Speech Theater’s The Little Match Girl Passion was comprised of many layers. Not only did it use many planes in terms of depths and levels of the theater, but it also approached the audiences with different means of communication. The Little Match Girl Passion’s first act included narration by John Farrell stage left, on the deepest and highest plane of the theater, with projections both behind and in front of him. Layers of dimensions were added by the musicians on stage right. The second act of the performance had the musicians come down to the audience level, puppet on stage left and also had a projection of a dancing Carol Farrell. Different physical layers of stage with layers of music, spoken words, puppetry, dance and projections were assembled to provide a multifaceted experience. It was a minimal but full, simple yet powerful experience for the audience. It touched the most humane part of our hearts, reminding us of the universality of human love and empathy.

A puppet resembling the Little Match Girl was awe-inspiring for the audience due to its precision and life-like movements. Figures of Speech Theater said puppets are fascinating because they are “delicate, lifelike but not imitative, yet suggesting the essential quality of humans.” It was true. The fact that it was a puppet added so much to the compassion the audience felt for the Little Match Girl. The puppet masters were able to bring a fragility and vulnerability to life, and it was given meaning when it met the audience.

Conversely, puppets resonated because the people were watching and caring, and yet this experience was limited by and was extremely vulnerable to the puppeteers. People gave life to the little girl and limited the little girl. The puppet is not a specific person, but instead a wooden doll that symbolizes the general and fundamental level of human life. This quality also helped attract more compassion and love.

Figures of Speech Theater’s interpretation of the grandmother of the Little Match Girl also focused on being transcendental and universal. The grandmother, played by Carol Farrell, was the human mother figure who witnessed the death of her granddaughter, a cosmic female figure from the spiritual universe who brings salvation and redemption. In other words, through inviting the character who transcends time and space on stage, Figures of Speech Theater successfully provoked and emphasized the universal human nature of pity and compassion.

In fact, the show as a whole described the connections of different universes. Inspirations for the music, spoken words, puppetry, dance and projections came from the qualities of the Japanese-styled Noh drama. And yes, it was a success.

The Little Match Girl puppet takes the stage. DEREK KIMBALL/COURTESY PHOTO