Hansel and Gretel
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
October 18, 2009
Though I'm only 25, the difference in children's entertainment now versus when I was six or seven is striking. For instance, on Sesame Street, Cookie Monster now no longer eats cookies, they're merely "a sometime food." In a recent reissuing of the movie ET, a scene where federal agents carry guns was digitally altered to make them into walkie-talkies.
Hansel and Gretel, now playing at the New Victory Theater, hearkens back to a time when entertainment for kids didn't need to be handled with kid gloves. This show is Jim Henson, not Teletubbies. It's funny, smart, energetic, and, yes, it is scary. But this Hansel and Gretel is not scary for the sake of being scary—it's scary because the story is scary. It assumes a refreshing level of intelligence in its young audience, and a majority of the kids there the day I saw it enjoyed it the more for that.
The way the show is set up also makes it the kind of experience you can share between parent and child. The piece is performed "promenade style," which means the whole New Victory Theater is transformed into the world of the play, from basement to balcony, and the audience (kids, parents, and me) get the chance to walk the paths of Hansel and Gretel's dark forest together.
The first part of the play takes place in the basement of the theatre, where the house of Hansel and Gretel, their loving father, and their evil stepmother has been meticulously created—down to the carpet on the floor, and pictures on the walls. After Hansel and Gretel are sent out into the woods to fend for themselves, the audience proceeds through the underground passages underneath the stage, and up into the theatre itself. These areas have been transformed into a haunting forest, complete with trees, bushes, the sound of wolves howling, and loud claps of thunder. As the audience goes further—and gets closer to the witch's house—things get a little more twisted. Paintings of children with red Xs over their faces appear, as well as a variety of ominously lit creepy dioramas of baby dolls and baby doll parts.
Eventually you arrive at the witch's house, which is set up in one of the offstage wings of the theatre. Rows of chairs are set in front of a long table covered in candy and sweets, with flowing white curtains on all the walls. The audience is given birthday hats, and made to sit, as Hansel and Gretel run about the table, eating everything in sight. Soon after, the witch appears. At first, she seems silly and eccentric, with a silly hat, bright clothing, and a candy cane walking stick. She sings a silly song to Hansel and Gretel and lulls them into bed. After they have gone to bed, however, the witch takes off her silly hat—to reveal a bald head—drops her walking stick, tears off her bright clothes, and reveals she's both covered in rags and completely insane. She pulls the white curtain from the walls, to reveal the exposed brick of the backstage, and pushes the white table cloth from the table, to reveal that's its actually a cage—to hold children, as she fattens them up to eat them. Of course, we all know how the story ends—but in case your little one is reading over your shoulder, I won't put any spoilers here.
Needless to say, I enjoyed this Hansel and Gretel very much. I thought it was well written, polished, and well acted. Cath Whitefield, playing both the evil stepmother and the witch is especially spectacular—funny and menacing as the stepmother, and genuinely terrifying as the witch.
But, ultimately, my opinion is not the point—the point is the children in the audience, who had this to say when myself and my companion asked them after the show:
"It was quite good and very odd."
"Scary and weird—the witch was a weirdo. Barbaric!"
"It was good because you got to walk around the forest. But it was scary!"
I think these responses sum up the experience of Hansel and Gretel. Its a scary show—maybe too scary for younger kids, but exciting for old ones. It is certainly "good"—well acted, well directed and well produced—and "odd"—in that you're unlikely to see anything else like it. So if you and your youngster want to share a scare this Halloween, check out Hansel and Gretel.