A smartly dressed brother and sister wander through the woods, arguing about God, sex, memory and existence. Mix in some catchy songs, a dancing chorus of forest creatures, and a witch (or two), and you have Hansel and Gretel, theater group Sparrowtree’s darkly clever adaptation of the classic fairytale.
An ambitious indie-folk musical, Hansel and Gretel is the brainchild of writer-director Chad Howard and singer-songwriter Carly Howard. Performed at local art/music venue 17 Frost, the show follows two stories side by side. One is traditional – the twins are abandoned in a forest by starving parents, find a gingerbread house, and eventually trap a hungry witch in an oven. The other finds a different, grown-up Hansel and Gretel in the present day. In it, Gretel flees the funeral of their father by running into a forest, only to be consoled and led back to the cemetery by Hansel. Once there, they encounter a mysterious groundskeeper and come to terms with their childhood.
Though this arrangement is initially jarring, it soon becomes clearer by virtue of an excellent cast and smart dialogue. Dustin Cross (Hansel) and Carly Howard (Gretel) give inspired performances and exude a cute sibling chemistry. As the storybook Hansel and Gretel, both are utterly convincing as children and downright adorable. Howard frets about monsters and pines for angels, clutching a raggedy doll. Cross stands tall, explaining the dangers of the forest to his sister and assuring her they will be protected by his magic. When they switch to their adult counterparts, their childish concerns turn into modern existential problems: Is intimacy possible? Can we trust our memories? Is there an ultimate answer? How do we let go and move on? Their basic personalities, however, hardly change at all. A dreamy, nervous Gretel questions everything and believes that trolls surround her. Solid, practical Hansel, wearing glasses and a blazer, and played with superb gravity by Cross, assures his sister that the supernatural does not exist and protects her from the real monsters – their own self-doubts. Gretel, by no means a weaker character, helps her brother in turn, both by tricking the witch to crawl into the oven and by persuading him to embrace his repressed memories.
The rest of the performers are no less talented. Alicia Fitzgerald gives wild, feline turns as the Mother and the Witch, burrowing midnight brown eyes into both cast members and the audience. Michael Castillejos is a nobly suffering Father/Woodcutter, although the character is underwritten and the actor woefully underused. The furry, female Beasts of the Forest give charming dances and Ken Quiricione steals scenes as the quirky, lonely Groundskeeper. Wistful indie-folk songs punctuate the traditional Hansel and Gretel storyline (but not the modern one). All are sung beautifully by the actors and played by a fine ensemble of musicians tucked away in the background of the theater. Musical director David Harris provides tasteful arrangements for the tunes, especially the eerie, haunting “Witches Have Red Eyes”.
Sparrowtree’s production also makes creative use of 17 Frost itself. The performance space has a unique theater section framed by three massive screens. Taking advantage of this technology, Sparrowtree runs videos of different backgrounds for corresponding scenes throughout the musical – a forest, a cemetery, a gingerbread house, etc. Between scenes, the screens play black-and-white videos of the present-day Hansel and Gretel cooking in a kitchen and working in their rooms. All this envelops the audience in a visceral visual experience. Complementing the show is “Illusion”, a photography exhibit by Julia Forrest held in 17 Frost’s exhibit section.
Hansel and Gretel is also the first major project of the 17 Frost Cooperative, an art collective that has recently been established at the space. “17 Frost Co-Op is the people that have invested in the space over the last four years,” General Manager Dave Scarborough explains. “It’s the people getting together to form a long-term sustainable art facility.”
Having finished a four-day run last Thursday to Sunday, Hansel and Gretel will run for an additional four shows at 8 PM September 26 – 29, but one will have to hurry to buy tickets. Almost all the shows have already been sold out. For more information about Hansel and Gretel and the Sparrowtree theater group, visit www.sparrowtree.org. For more information about 17 Frost and how to become involved in the Cooperative, visit 17frost.com.