Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: 24th Street Theatre's Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass is Artful Storytelling

Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote. All photos by Cooper Bates

24th Street Theatre takes on the Brothers Grimm in its latest world premiere Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass by Bryan Davidson, but forget the fairy tale  you think you know. This is no sanitized version of the story. The original, written in 1812, was a cautionary tale, bleak in its portrayal of a time when it was commonplace for impoverished families to abandon their children for lack of food and resources. The thought was that they would somehow find a way to survive and maybe even be better off on their own. It’s a heartbreaking decision for any parent to make and, unfortunately, one that families in dire circumstances around the world still face today.

For that reason it makes sense that the company would reimagine the story’s conventions in its own meaningful, unique way. Director Debbie Devine and Davidson have created a grim, haunting, and incredibly touching tale that speaks to our most basic instincts – fear, love, and the determination to survive.

Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote with Bradley Whitford on video

Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass transports the brother and sister to the Eastern Kentucky mining town of Butcher Holler during the 1930s as part of a radio program narrated by an onscreen DJ (Bradley Whitford as “The Duke”). Here, work is scarce and so is food. Their mother lives in the cemetery where Gretel (Angela Giarratana) visits and sings from the family hymnal, her one possession and the only thing that makes her forget the hunger in her belly. Their pa is a poor miner, destitute, out of work and unable to provide for them. When the reality of the situation becomes unbearable, he tells them he is taking them to stay with relatives. Deep in the woods, he gives Hansel (Caleb Foote) the three objects you need to survive – a blade to cut, a cord to bind, and iron to make a fire – before leaving them to chop firewood. By the time they realize he has abandoned them, it is too late.

Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote

They stumble upon a limestone cave and a mysterious blind Mountain Woman (a wonderfully enigmatic Sarah Zinsser) who shows them what they want to see. Gretel, who has previously been told she is of no use (“What good are you Gretel, you’re just a girl”) suddenly becomes valuable because of her voice while Hansel, who has always been in charge, is treated as the outsider (“What good are you, Hansel, you don’t sing”). The reversal of fortune is a poignant one, for this story is full of harsh lessons much like life. Here the woods are the world and what they will come to realize by story’s end is, in order to survive, what they really need is each other. 

The standoff between brother and sister begins early in the play and both Foote and Giarratana are full of fire. Devine deftly heightens the tension during their tiffs by modulating the interplay between silence and outburst. The result of this stretching and release of pressure is that the volatility of the story hits you in the pit of your stomach. More than once I found myself holding my breath and had to consciously remind myself to breathe. It captures the world in a moment at an internal level that you feel first before words are even spoken.

Caleb Foote

To create the striking visual world, set designer Keith Mitchell uses four textured and layered cutout backdrops that function as a living panorama for Matthew Hill’s sketchbook-inspired charcoal drawing projections and lighting designer Dan Weingarten’s haunting colorations. Each time the scene shifts, from forest to cave to cemetery to well, the elements morph subtly creating locations that feel eerily alive. Christopher Moscatiello further enhances the ominous and spacious feel of the mountains and woods in his thoughtful sound design.

Music director Megan Swan combines recognizable songs and hymns to evoke the era and time period. Some, like the terrific “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Miner’s Prayer” are performed by the LA-based bluegrass band, The Get Down Boys. Others, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Amazing Grace” are sung acapella with a plaintive vulnerability by Giarratana, 

Hansel & Gretel has always been more than simply a child’s story about getting lost in the woods. 24th Street Theatre's Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass pushes its artful storytelling to new heights with this fresh interpretation sure to resonate with both young people and adults alike.

October 29 – December 11, 2016
24th Street Theatre
1117 West 24th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007
Tickets: ($10 - $24) call 213-745-6516 or go to
Saturdays 3pm & 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3pm

Sarah Zinsser and Angela Giarratana

Caleb Foote and Angela Giarratana

Angela Giarratana and Sarah Zinsser

Caleb Foote and Angela Giarratana

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