There are points during In the Northern Lands: Nordic Myths, which runs through March 14 at Seattle Children's Theatre, when you can't help but fall under the spell of the ancient tales of gods and giants, dwarves and enchanted beasts. It is enough to make you wish you were a Viking.
Seattle, of course, has an affinity for all things Nordic. Bookended by lutefisk-loving Ballard to the north and bargain-ridden Ikea to the south is a city where you can stage traditional tales of Nordic gods and expect more than a few members of your audience to recognize the names Thor, Odin and Valhalla.
Director Linda Hartzell (celebrating her 25th year as SCT's artistic director) employs a deceptively simple set of asymmetrical rocks littering the floor and ropes hanging from above, along with a nimble cast of four, to create a mythic world where high-flying action and epic scope magically meld.
Novice aerialists Hans Altwies, Emily Chisholm, Rafael Untalan, and David Quicksall began training for their arduous roles back in September with aerial choreographer Lara Paxton Rasberry. Throughout the 90-minute play, they scramble up and down the ropes like gym-class superstars. In between swinging across the unpadded stage, the quartet switches roles and costumes at lightning speed, wields swords, and downshifts from broad comedy to reverent tragedy without appearing to break a sweat.
The only thing this impressive cast cannot do is make sense of some very daunting dialogue. Woe unto the audience member whose attention wanders during the introductory lines, in which crucial terminology including "Jotun," "Aesir" and "Asgard" are introduced. It seems playwright Torrie McDonald (who created the script with Hartzell from an adaptation of the traditional stories by Carole Shieber — you got all that?) could not simply use the terms "giants," "gods" and "heaven" in this play intended for 8-year-olds. To further complicate things, the performers frequently swap the usual first person acting for third-person narration, Book-It Theatre style. Book-It knows how to do this masterfully; it's not a technique to dabble in unless it's crucial to the script, and In the Northern Lands would fare better without it.
The play covers a whole lot of mythological ground. In trying to give the audience as many tales as possible, many a potentially great theatrical moment is lost. The production would be far stronger if the writers focused on the three or four most engaging myths of the evening, typically those featuring Untalan's hilariously doltish Thor, or Quicksall's Thrym or Skyrmir — let's just refer to them as "the unintentionally identical giants he awesomely portrays on painter's stilts." Trust me, the latter name is easier to remember. Instead, there were too many myths, too many runic names, too many abrupt conclusions. At times, tackling Wagner's Ring cycle — in German — seemed the less confusing option.
Still, any kid who can follow the many twists and turns of The Lord of the Rings trilogy will get a respectable introduction to Nordic mythology and one heck of a thrill from this new play. Catch it through March 14 at SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre at Seattle Center.