Hystopolis Puppet Theatre

at the Free Street Community Arts Center

Now this could be a growth industry and you heard it here first. For those adults who would like to see kiddie shows–children’s plays, puppet shows, the circus, Disney ice pageants–but who lack the kids, we need a sort of Rent-A-Tot. Perfect for crashing all those shows where adults are supposed to be accompanied by a child.

Unless you own one, you might want to consider renting or borrowing a little person so you can infiltrate Hystopolis Puppet Theatre’s ingenious 40-minute version of Hansel and Gretel. As retold by writer/composer John Gegenhuber, this version remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original Brothers Grimm tale, especially to the sense of abandonment that lies at its heart; it even adds an earlier betrayal.

Gegenhuber sets his retelling in the Appalachian Mountains, a change of locale that’s carried out with a sure sense of local color and slang. In this superstitious setting, strange old women have been known to lay curses on their enemies’ belongings, hexes that are often visited on the enemies’ children. That’s what seems to allow the witch her control over Hansel and Gretel. Actually, they’re foster parents because Hansel and Gretel are foundlings; it seems that seven years before, the couple discovered the brother and sister when a magic red bird led them to two lost babes in the woods.

This story replays that first abandonment. And hard times have hit Hansel’s hollow hard. As poor Paw says, “If it weren’t for bad luck, there’d be no luck.” Their last bit of food, knocked over during an impromptu square dance, gets eaten by chickens. An old hag named Kat Grizzle offers to take the children off their parents’ hands, but Maw declares she’s not that desperate. Still the offer triggers the children’s memories of their first plight, so they light with special ardor into churning the butter and chopping the wood.

As had happened once before, the children wander into the woods and get lost again. It doesn’t help that two funny-scary trees give them conflicting directions during another banjo-plucking square dance. The waifs fall asleep, and a floating sandman sings them a mountain lullaby. When they awaken, there’s the regulation gingerbread house. Two dancing gingerbread men perform a vaudeville two-step to welcome Hansel and Gretel to the brave new world of baked children.

The witch–of course it’s Kat Grizzle–plays on the children’s fear of never returning home, of being lost and this time not being found. She warns them not to run away: “You’ll die in the wilderness!” Throwing a spell, she ties Hansel up in a vine, while Gretel has to shove wood into a big-mouthed, wonderfully talkative oven. Interestingly, in this version Gretel’s attempt to kill the witch misfires, but in a neat twist Kat is, with a kind of poetic justice, punished by her own device.

Once the parents manage to stumble across their resourceful and triumphant children, the magical red bird reappears to fly around the mother. I’m not sure why. Was it trying to point the way to other lost children? Or does it come as part of the tale’s package deal–the bird arrives, early or late, whenever Hansel and Gretel get lost? Or is it meant to symbolize the end of the cycle of abandonment?

Manipulated and given their rich hill-country voices by Larry Basgall, Michael Schwabe, and Tina Steele, the dozen rod puppets look and sound sufficiently realistic, and they are unpredictable enough, to grab and hold the most fidgety toddler’s attention. In addition to the growling, sarcastic trees (straight out of The Wizard of Oz), we see a crow balefully swooping above, some neat blowing leaves, and a scampering squirrel shimmying up a tree; we hear both subtle and startling sound effects. Accompanying the action and his own bouncy songs, Gegenhuber alternates a mean banjo with a merry fiddle.

Curiously enough, all versions of the tale omit what may be its most fascinating part, the sequel. How do the parents handle the fact that the children had to save themselves? And how do Hansel and Gretel accept knowing that these parents who couldn’t properly feed them also couldn’t protect them from the witch? In this fairy tale, the heroic characters don’t get any special rewards for their pluck, either–all they do is survive, to return to their poverty. Well, that’s another, darker tale. This one–a story where children are their own heroes–is told quite well enough.