Fairy tales are filled with all kinds of horrors. Cinderella’s stepsisters’ bloody attempts at carving their feet so as to be able to fit into the glass slipper immediately come to mind; so does “Little Red Riding Hood” and the devouring wolf. “Hansel and Gretel” has a different kind of cruelty. In the German original, a woodcutter in a time of famine is persuaded by his second wife to take his children deep into the forest and abandon them to their fates, so that the treacherous couple will have a chance to survive.
In Bryan Davidson’s adroit adaptation, Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass, set in 1930s Appalachia, a disc jockey (Bradley Whitford on video) takes a break from spinning records to spin a yarn about a laid-off coal miner in desperate straits who takes his two kids into the woods, ostensibly to lead them to a relative a goodly hike away who might take them in. When the father disappears, the trusting kids have a hard time believing that their father has deserted them.
In classic male behavior, Hansel (Will Mercer) assumes the lead, harshly dominating his younger, brighter sister. He is cruel in petty ways and does some mean things, but does try hard to look after the gifted Gretel (Angela Giarratana), who loves to sing because she did that every day with her deceased mother. True to the old tale, the children encounter a spooky old gal, The Mountain Women (Sarah Zinsser), a blind crone wearing impenetrable dark glasses, who leads them to her house, which is warm and loaded with food. Suffice it say that this adaptation generally follows the old story line.
A minimal set by Keith Mitchell, lit by Dan Weingarten, consists of several layers of drops hung in a progression from downstage to upstage with cut-outs that suggest a cave. The front drop also serves as the screen for the cunning video design of Matthew Hill, which fleshes out the forest, and also serves up the action of Bradley Whitford narrating stage left, and The Get Down Boys (Mark Cassidy–banjo, Scott Gates–mandolin, Israel Parker–dobro and Evan Winsor–bass) playing their old-timey music stage right. The concept works like gangbusters! Christopher Moscatiello sound design is superb helping to seamlessly integrate the video and live action. And Michael Mullen’s costume design reinforces character and place.
Directed by Debbie Devine, Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass is a bona fide hit. The show premiered on October 29 and was extended in January and will now run through May 21 at 24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th Street in Los Angeles.