That image—and those memories of Detroit as a place of desolation but also unexpected beauty—stuck with Dunn, and helped inspire The Snow Queen, premiering as part of the annual Fertile Ground festival of new works. The show, which Dunn calls a "folk opera," recasts Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale amid the empty warehouses and scrappy community gardens of contemporary Detroit. For Dunn, Andersen's story—of loss and redemption, of decay and preservation, of the power of imagination—fits well in a postindustrial wasteland.
"How do you create magic out of devastation?" asks Dunn, a fine-featured 31-year-old with a day job teaching poetry to elementary-school students. "Where is there space for that in adult life?"
In Andersen's original "Snow Queen," Kai and Gerda are best friends who live next door to each other. When Kai gets a shard of glass in his eye—a broken fragment of a magic mirror—his heart turns cold and he mysteriously disappears. In this adaptation, which Dunn is co-directing with Alley Pezanoski-Browne, Kai and Gerda are neighbors who work at a bottling factory in Detroit—and, naturally, live across the way from an abandoned ballroom. Gerda, played by Dunn, is the dreamier and more childlike of the two. But sheer imagination isn't enough for Kai, and he falls into a heroin addiction that pulls him away from Gerda.
That's an autobiographical detail: Dunn's older brother is a recovering addict. But growing up on a turkey farm outside Corvallis (Dunn confirms the birds are just as mean as you've heard), the siblings would spend hours playing make-believe. When her brother grew out of the games, Dunn, like Gerda, felt abandoned. "He's three years older, so he started to turn away," Dunn says. "He would always say to me, 'I just gotta go meet up with some people.'"
In the fairy tale, Gerda embarks on a search for Kai, along the way encountering all variety of characters—some helpful, some unsavory. Here, much of this unfolds through song. Dunn sings and plays banjo with the Ghosts of Xmas Past, which makes eerie, whispery folk music. For The Snow Queen, she's written 11 original songs, to be performed by an onstage band that includes glockenspiel, ukulele, oilcan drum and theremin. Dunn's voice—high-pitched and haunting—can be singular to the point of distracting. But if you listen closely to the lyrics, you'll pick up on references to Andersen's tale: a flower-pot garden, a splintered mirror, arthropods melted on the stove. Dunn says the songs help establish a bridge between the wintry Scandinavia of Andersen's original tale and the bleakness of modern-day Detroit.
"The music sets the mood," she says, "conveying us into a cold night."
The setting helps, too. The show is being held in a converted warehouse in the shadow of the Hawthorne Bridge. The small space, known mostly for dark-wave dance nights, experimental burlesque shows and erotic rope-bondage performances, seats only 40, and Dunn says it'll be kept spare. "This is a postindustrial show, and this is a postindustrial warehouse," she says. "The point is emptiness."
Dunn knows she has a dark sensibility: "I was in a marketing meeting, and people were like, 'Stop talking about heroin!'" she says. Even so, she's injected The Snow Queen with some comic relief. The character of the crow—a confidant for Gerda on her quest to find Kai—has been transformed into an aging punk rocker with a crusty exterior but a soft, romantic core. The show also pokes fun at the ways disillusioned people make stabs at connection.
"Gerda ends up at a community garden and is roped into volunteering," Dunn says. "That's like Portland, where you're searching for ways to engage with your community and get too caught up in one thing. And then you stop seeing your friends because you're too busy making your own cheese.â
SEE IT: The Snow Queen is at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, 1464 SE 2nd Ave. 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, Jan. 24-25; 9 pm Friday-Saturday, Jan. 30-31; 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 1. $15.