When the Brothers Grimm wrote “Hansel and Gretel,” they sent kids a message: The world’s full of evil. Strangers who seem kind may be out to get you, and your family may not be there to help. Perhaps your family is the reason you need help, because they’re trying to kill you. (As usual, a stepmom took most of the blame.)
How this went down 201 years ago, in a Europe suffering from famine and the predations of Napoleon, we can only guess. But a modern retelling is likely to take liberties with this bleak tale, and the Tarradiddle Players version now being done at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte takes more than a few. Luckily, they’re refreshing.
In Mike Kenny’s updating, we start with a dysfunctional modern family sitting apart at supper time, with the younger two texting. As the son says, “A father, a mother, a sister, a brother – if we’re eating together, we don’t talk to each other.” (Bits of the play are in rhyme.)
The disgusted mom finally sweeps the plates away and decides to tell the story of “Hansel and Gretel.” From then on, the characters go back and forth from the modern family to the one starving in the Grimmly-populated forest.
Director Joe Hernandez and the four actors make these transitions smoothly, sometimes as quickly as having the son (Stephen Seay) don eyeglasses to become Hansel. When mom (Tanya McClellan) reappears as the witch, she simply dons a brown robe and a patently false hooked nose and hunches over. John Bowers’ set allows for quick changes in locale: Pieces of furniture convert to a cage or an oven, and panels in the windows revolve to provide backgrounds.
There’s a lot to get through in 55 minutes, especially when Kenny introduces a mouse. Said rodent starts off on the menu for the starving woodchopper’s family, escapes due to Hansel and Gretel’s kindness and later gets transformed into a six-foot creature by the witch. (Scott Miller has a ball playing the timorous beastie.)
This version doesn’t emphasize the “stranger danger” theme as strongly. The witch even takes a shine to Gretel (Leslie Ann Giles), and offers in a moment of creepy kinship to become her mentor in spell-casting and child-cooking.
But little Gretel, who has often been overlooked because she’s the younger child in her family – and, of course, not male – takes over heroically to bring the tale to a girl-power close.
The script follows the Grimm plot closely, down to a not-quite-happy ending for all of Hansel and Gretel’s family. This time, though, the guilty parent is not a stepmother but blood kin. If we take that message literally – even the woman who bore you may be out to get you – it’s mighty disturbing.
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