The Children’s Aid Society
Greenwich Village Center Theatre
New York, NY
March 12, 2000
The Puppetworks has chosen to preserve the feel of the classic version without the angst.
review by Donald Devet
A brother and sister are abandoned by their parents. They are captured by a witch who plans to cook and eat them. But the witch gets shoved into an oven where she’s burned alive. This is a story for children? You bet it is and has been for a long time. Children never seem to get tired of watching this gruesome tale– originally told as a folk tale, then as an opera and frequently as a puppet show. H&G is a staple in many a puppet company’s repertoire. It’s a sure-fire crowd pleaser, right up there with “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Since the plot is so well known, except maybe by the one- year-olds, it’s not what you tell, it’s how you tell it.
The Puppetworks, Inc., based in Brooklyn, N.Y., dedicates itself to preserving and presenting classic puppet theatre. But preservation is a gray area. The undiluted story of Hansel and Gretel as recorded by the Brothers Grimm would be too grim for our politically correct 21st century sensibilities. Child abandonment and cannibalism are not your everyday topics of conversation, especially when you’re talking to a toddler. Instead, The Puppetworks has chosen to preserve the feel of the classic version without the angst. They’ve even thrown in a little culture in the form of an aria or two, thanks to Engelbert Humperdinck’s operatic adaptation.
Staged as a marionette show, H&G has that old world look– carved wood figures and painted backdrops. The taped dialog even sounds old world– stilted and formal. But the stodginess is relieved by a smattering of animal characters who provide some butt wiggling, a guaranteed laugh getter with the under two set.
The story moves along at a steady pace. H&G are good kids, just mischievous. Their parents are good parents, just dirt poor; brooms aren’t selling like they used to. Poverty forces the kids to venture into the woods to find food. Of course, as anyone knows from reading Grimm, the woods are fraught with danger. But before we get to the really good stuff, i.e. the witch, we have to endure a lengthy scene where H&G lose their way and fall asleep. A comical sandman sprinkles magic dust as fourteen angels hover over the tykes singing a little Humperdinck.
By this time we’re good and ready for that witch. After the kids discover the house of pancakes, gingerbread and lollipops, magically envisioned in black light, the witch sweeps on stage. She is more funny than scary with crossed eyes and her own wiggly butt. She immediately puts a hex on Hansel taking him out of the picture and off the stage. When you only have two puppeteers (Matthew Acheson and Michael Leach) to manipulate three characters, sacrifices have to be made. But whether for economy or brevity we are denied one of my favorite scenes in H&G. I’ve always loved the moment when Hansel tricks the nearsighted witch into thinking he is too skinny to be eaten by presenting her with a chicken bone instead of his finger to feel.
As soon as Hansel is whisked off stage, Gretel gets busy gathering wood. And moments later, the Witch is duped into showing her how to work the oven door. Before you can say “easy bake,” Gretel pushes the witch into the stove. Thanks to a Rosco fog machine the terrible witch is transformed into a gingerbread cookie; now she’s good enough to eat. H&G are reunited with their parents, they all eat gingerbread, the music swells and the curtain closes.
The Puppetworks makes H&G just palatable enough to please kiddies and their adult chaperones. Adults feel they’ve exposed their wards to a “classic” and the kids get a taste of professional puppet theatre performed in a straight forward style.
The trick to making a classic tale work is to find a way to relate the story to today’s mindset. Instead, The Puppetworks seems to have chosen to preserve H&G in an airtight bottle– a charming relic to look at, but without much spirit. Maybe it’s time to pop the cork and let the story breathe.