Chicago’s House Theatre returns to the Arsht Center with ‘Rose and the Rime’

Given the vast popularity of Frozen — now the most successful animated movie of all time, with more than $1 billion in worldwide revenue — it would be tough not to notice some similarities between the Disney megahit and Rose and the Rime.

The latter is the latest House Theatre of Chicago play to visit the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where it will run through May 18. As with Frozen, the House’s original stage fairy-tale features a plucky heroine who goes off on a dangerous quest that might just free her small town from being trapped in perpetual winter.

Both the movie and the play are somewhat reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Yet Chris Mathews, who wrote the Rose and the Rime script with director-playwright Nathan Allen and Jake Minton, says the House story about a little Midwestern girl named Rose is something he and his coauthors dreamed up in 2008, five years before Frozen.

“The Snow Queen wasn’t in our source bag at all. I didn’t even know it,” Mathews says. “There are some wonderful similarities, and you can’t help but see parallels between our story and Narnia. Some things are just elemental.”

The elemental story of Rose and the Rime follows the adventures of the orphaned Rose, a girl living in the fictional town of Radio Falls. Headstrong Rose, hoping to bring an end to the spell keeping Radio Falls stuck in an endless winter, sets off to retrieve a magic coin stolen by the Rime Witch. Her mission leads to danger, a death and change. But life, as it will, keeps circling back to repeat its patterns.

Artistic director Allen, who has previously staged his company’s The Sparrow, Death and Harry Houdini and The Nutcracker at the Arsht, presented Rose and the Rime at the House’s small Chicago theater in 2009 and again during the Windy City’s just-ended brutal winter. He, Mathews and Minton did some rewriting on the current version, making it darker.

“We try to accomplish epic action with the humblest of tools,” Allen says. “It’s a primal exploration of things that are at the heart of the House, things like the tensions between a hero and her community, between good and evil, between right and wrong.”

Mathews says that in moving away from the first “more cartoonish” version of Rose and the Rime, the writers were trying to create a quintessential fairy-tale.

“We’re asking questions about ambition and competition… How much do pain and struggle bring us together, just as joy and release do? And there’s the idea that searching for something that can fulfill all your dreams can poison them too,” he says.

Making her fourth appearance in a House show, Paige Collins plays Rose in what she calls a “super physical” piece of theater. She loves the reactions of kids and adults in the audience, and the chance to engage with theatergoers directly.

“The kids are rapt. And they aren’t scared of saying things to us in a really wonderful way,” Collins says. “The adults are in awe of the really physical things we do. We give the audience information and let them do some of the work. And we get to look people in the eye and play with them.”

Ericka Ratcliff, who plays Rose’s nemesis the Rime Witch, works at numerous Chicago theaters. She sees her character as “the broken soul of Radio Falls, metaphorically. She’s lonely and anguished and heartbroken.”

She loves working with the House and director Allen in this 90-minute, intermission-free production — “hit it and quit it” is how she describes Rose and the Rime — and enjoys the company’s creative aesthetic.

“Nathan is so lighthearted and collaborative. He’s accepting of everyone’s ideas. He’s a great reader, and he likes to play. It’s not too often that you get to experience something so experimental in a mainstream theater,” she says.

Allen, who will bring the House’s magic-infused show The Magnificents to the Arsht next season, remains enthusiastic about the relationship between his small Chicago company and Miami’s major performing arts center.

“It’s absolutely good for the company when a piece that has taken years to develop can be reexamined in a new context,” Allen says. “We feel we’re becoming closer to the audience here.”