Theatre Review: “Hansel and Gretel”
Reporting from Norfolk — Hansel and Gretel lived in the back of a ramshackle station wagon decorated with German bumper stickers next to a boarded-up trailer, right? Promoting an awareness of the financial hardships that ordinary American families face from one home foreclosure to the next job layoff, director Kevin Newbury replaces the enchanted, haunting forests of composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Germany for the bland, sweeping Midwest American flatlands in Virginia Opera’s Hansel and Gretel.
At once, we recognize Hansel and Gretel’s destitution sprawled across scenic designer Mimi Lien’s conception of mobile home, American commercial anemia. They are disobedient, naughty children because they are starving, not so much because they are innately greedy, insolent siblings. Superimposed against this modern economic context, Newbury, moreover, writes the opera is about “a child’s fear of abandonment” in his director’s notes.
His interpretation did not persuade me on opening night in Norfolk. The obvious disparities between the opera’s staging and the English supertitles of Adelheid Wette’s libretto must have been required in order to accommodate his reading. Richmond audiences will get a chance to catch the show when the opera tours over Thanksgiving weekend.
The modernized, intellectual interpretive strategy blurs the finer details of re-telling this traditional horror-story mythology. This keeps the performance from reaching enchantment and fear. The folklore commences when Hansel and Gretel’s mother—Gertrude (Margaret Gawrysiak)—banishes them into the forests—in this case, the prairies of the American heartland—because they have not swept up the dirt around their station wagon. In this scene, Hansel (Karin Mushegain) and Gretel (Julia Ebner) make a cute pair of rambunctious children who are one milk-jug breaking escapade away from a prescription of Ritalin.
The wandering youth are supposed to get lost in the woods—as is written in Wette’s libretto—instead Newbury has them arrive back to the poor compound where their mother and father, Pete (an astounding Eric Greene), have left—or I mean “abandoned”—them to rescue them from The Witch (Margaret Gawrysiak), who preys on unsuspecting children. Mushegain and Ebner’s characterizations are subtle in expressing the shock a child would experience if he realized he had been abandoned. The shadings left me incredulous.
Having fallen asleep, they awaken to a decrepit carnival abundant with fried dough, candy apples and cotton candy. The Witch lures them in with these irresistible sweets and candies. Then, she enslaves Gretel and imprisons Hansel. Gretel, ultimately, displays the power of female wit so that good wins over evil.
But, not all of these proceedings are readable on stage. It would have helped to distinguish the different locations in the opera if lighting designer D.M. Wood had created more of a contrast between the worlds of lackluster childhood and fairytale sorcery. They collide into each other. And although Gawrysiak humors us by preparing her dining table with a box of franzia, she doesn’t appear ruthlessly scary.
It doesn’t help either that the synopsis in the playbill writes for Act III that “Hansel, judged too scrawny to be eaten is caged”; there’s no caging in this production. Instead, The Witch ties his hands up with licorice. It also writes the “Witch celebrates with a broomstick joyride”; nope, no broomstick joyriding in this show. Or, how about “as the gingerbread children are restored to life,” costumer designer Paul Carey doesn’t distinguish the children’s chorus (provided by The Governor’s School for the Arts) with gingerbread apparel.
Wette writes the libretto with a quality of verse that is lyrical and sacred. Act II’s “Abendsegen” reminds us of the distinct religious undertones laced within the mythical subject matter. The singing is pleasant—there’s one countertenor who is jarring—and conductor Gerald Steichen keeps the score soothing and light. Begrudgingly, I like this piece – it’s like a candy apple that’s a little too hard to bite into, but still appealing.
3 ½ out of 5 Stars
“Hansel and Gretel” runs through November 25th and November 27th, 2011 at Richmond CenterStage. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.vaopera.org/. Photo by David Polston.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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