Hansel and Gretel (CATCO is Kids! – Columbus, OH)

 
It must be tough to know when your child is of the proper age to be taken to a movie theatre or a live performance and be trusted not to act out. No one wants to deal with a restless preschooler, especially in public. Fortunately, here in Columbus, we have Columbus Children’s Theatre and CATCO is Kids!, two companies that present short (usually less than an hour) productions intended for the younger set in an environment far less formal (not to mention much less expensive) than taking a chance on a stress-free excursion to The Lion King or Wicked. Something short, familiar, and less formal is exactly what CATCO is Kids! is presenting with Hansel and Gretel at the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Seating is on bleachers, the performance runs for around forty minutes, and the production is tame enough that the toddlers in attendance shouldn’t be too frightened.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson
 

Hansel and Gretel is presented in an adaptation of The Grimm Brothers original by Steven C. Anderson, CATCO’s Artistic Director, sticking closely to the outline of the source except for a post-modern spin; the actors come out to present the story, referring to many other fairy tales before settling on the proper details for this one. For those not in the know, Hansel and Gretel is the story of two children living an impoverished life with their woodcutter father and his harridan of a second wife. In an extreme example of free-range parenting, the children are lead into the woods to survive on their own or perish, only to happen upon the gingerbread house of a cannibalistic witch. Hansel and Gretel must use their brains to outwit the witch and return home.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Madison Rose Wilson and Colby Tarrh
 
Director Joe Bishara leads two energetic young actors (Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson) to perform all of the parts, manipulate the puppets, and handle the scenic changes, and they appear more than up to the challenge. Mr. Tarrh is especially engaging as Hansel, Hansel’s father, and one of the narrators. Ms. Wilson comes off as shrill whether she is portraying the stepmother, the witch, or Gretel, and her narrator is one that is characterized as a know-it-all and brash; the part is written so she could have performed it as confused and simple, which would’ve helped her come off as more likable and comedic. Still, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Tarrh make a good, determined team, and they appear perfectly comfortable interacting with the audience.

One glaring directing snafu is one in which the actors turn away from the audience when they are voicing their puppets. It only happens when the witch or either of the parents are also in the scene conversing with Hansel and Gretel, but having the actors spin around is not only unnecessary but even looks a bit ridiculous; when they are both doing it, reciting lines as multiple characters and twirling around together, it’s like they are funneling down a bathtub drain. Children can be trusted to suspend disbelief enough to understand that when Ms. Wilson is playing the stepmother that she is also controlling and voicing Gretel as a puppet; after all, surely their parents have read them bedtime stories without the need to turn away as they did various voices.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson
 
The set by John Baggs is serviceable, a wooden unit painted to resemble trees, designed with layered backdrops for the witch’s home and her oven. The only problem is how flimsy the backdrops look being split down the middle and held in place by bands on either side; the section representing the oven doesn’t look much like an oven either. The main standing set looks quite sturdy, as if it was designed to withstand weather and use. Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting is quite effective, creating the illusion of dappled sunlight through the trees, though interestingly enough the demise of the witch doesn’t involve the use of any bold lighting or sound effects; the conclusion of the play is oddly devoid of excitement, so much so that the audience remained silent at the performance I attended until Mr. Bishara let them know, “That’s it!” at the end. 

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – Madison Rose Wilson
 

Hansel and Gretel is just about par for the course as far as children’s theatre goes, which is unfortunate. As with many a children’s television series and film, adults in attendance will probably find themselves checking their watches from time to time, something that shouldn’t happen for a show that lasts only forty minutes. Hansel and Gretel is benign enough to be suitable for very young children as one of their first theatre experiences, but it certainly could’ve been a bit more engaging for the rest of us with a tad more effort and creativity.

** out of ****

Hansel and Gretel continues through to March 20th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/catco-is-kids/2015-2016/hansel-and-gretel

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Jon Baggs and Lighting by Curtis “Nitz” Brown
Advertisements

Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

Growing up is so awful that it’s a good thing we have to go through it only once. The process is only seen as poignant in retrospect, as the pain and embarrassment is easier to overlook in the rearview mirror. Gallery Players is now presenting Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical tale of youth, Brighton Beach Memoirs, as the opening show of their 67th season, and adolescence has really been depicted so candidly – or as endearingly funny.

Brighton Beach Memoirs premiered on Broadway in 1983 and was a hit, running over three years, and was then adapted into a rather stale and miscast film in 1986. The play takes place in Brooklyn in the fall of 1937 during The Great Depression and is about the Jerome household, a Jewish family encompassing Kate and Jack Jerome; their two sons, Eugene and Stanley; Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche; and Blanche’s two daughters, Nora and Laurie. Most of the action revolves around Eugene Morris Jerome, a fifteen-year-old who is dealing with puberty and the ever-changing struggles of those around him, covering situations as diverse as unemployment, death, love, and decades-old grudges that finally come to the fore.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Neil Kalef (Eugene)
 
This play can only work with a Eugene that is of the right age and able to have frank discussions about sex and the difficult changes boys go through at that age; this production has Neil Kalef in the role, who is just the right age, has the slightly sour attitude commiserate with being ignored by his family, and is free from embarrassment saying lines that would make most teens blush and look away. Mr. Kalef is utterly believable as Eugene, and his asides to the audience are as honest as they are funny.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Gellman (Blanche), Felise Chernoff (Kate), and Jenna Rodier (Laurie)
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the play, but special credit should also go to Susan Gellman as Blanche, Jennifer Geiger as Nora, and Rick A. Holt as Jack. Ms. Gellman plays rather meek and withdrawn extremely well, and her transition to being a stronger parent and more assertive in taking control of her and her daughters’ lives is revelatory; she’s heartbreaking while reading a letter from a potential suitor, and the scene she shares with Ms. Geiger in which she finally takes charge as a mother is electrifying. Ms. Geiger as her daughter Nora is present and reacts naturally to everything around her; she’s believably excited at the prospect of a career on Broadway and firmly stubborn to get her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Rick A. Holt (Jack)
 
Rick A. Holt is extremely strong as Jack, the patriarch of the family, always the one sought out for advice and working several jobs to make ends meet. Mr. Holt has a brassy swiftness about him that makes Jack both intimidating to his family as well as the kind of guy you know they want to please. When he tells his son Stanley (Phil Cunningham, who is just right as the ne’er-do-well oldest son, and whose scenes with Mr. Kalef as his younger brother Eugene work because of their chemistry) that there is nothing that Stanley could do that he as his father couldn’t forgive him for, it’s enough to make you wish that every father was as honest and direct as Mr. Holt is as Jack. Felise Chernoff as his wife Kate is no slouch either, perfect as the nagging mother whose demeanor contrasts with the love she obviously feels for her family. Ms. Chernoff had more than her share of stumbles during the opening night performance, but I’m sure that had more to do with nerves than any lack of talent or preparation.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Neil Kalef (Eugene), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jennifer Geiger (Nora), and Susan Gellman (Blanche)
 
Set designer Jon Baggs has created a set that qualifies it as another character in the play, complete with a living and dining room and stairs leading to a second level where the brothers and their cousins share separate rooms. It looks like people really live there, and such care has been taken to make it appear functional and appropriately period. Director Mark Mann keeps things moving and making sense, not allowing any scene to bake too long; he really gets the point of the play and understands how to make the actors work together as a family.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Phil Cunningham (Stanley), Susan Gellman (Blanche), Rick A. Holt (Jack), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), and Jennifer Geiger (Nora)
 
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this production, and I enjoyed learning a bit about the culture. Most everyone will recognize characteristics of people in the play as being similar to some people in their own family, and there are definitely scenes that any male will understand and probably smile about to themselves. Some of the dialogue and situations may keep Brighton Beach Memoirs from being suitable to anyone under the age of thirteen, but boy would having seen this play at that age have helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one dealing with such issues.

***/ out of ****

Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through to November 1st in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/