Alaska 'Hansel & Gretel' closes out Perseverance season

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2010

Good night Juneau. What? Can't sleep? Well then here's a great little bedtime story from Perseverance Theatre. An entertaining adventure whose only faults are that it isn't longer and it will not put you to sleep.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"Hansel & Gretel," the classic Grimm's fairy tale turned musical, closes out the mainstage season at Perseverance with Norwegian director Henning Hegland at the helm. Hegland was raised on the Grimm-like tales of his countrymen Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Engebretsen Moe.

"There is definitely a lot in this from everybody's childhood," Hegland said. "Whenever and wherever that is. I was brought up on Norwegian folk tales. I heard about all the various monsters, creatures, and magic. Then I saw the landscape here and read 'Hansel & Gretel' and the fantasy world they go into and saw how to identify that here."

Clara Weishahn, 26, a guest artist from Portland, plays Hansel. Raised and homeschooled on a farm 40 miles north of Haines, the actress agrees that the Alaska landscape is a good setting for the story.

"There is a version of this opera playing in Portland," Weishahn said. "'Hansel and Gretel' in Alaska is way cooler. Here, what it means to go into the forest and get lost is way different."

To get into characters, Weishahn and JDHS senior Katie Poor, 17, who plays Gretel, were dispatched by Hegland to study the Perseverance Theatre's Young Company actors, who also have roles in the production, and to note the children's interactions.

"It's a challenging role to discover," said Weishahn, who cut her long blonde hair shoulder-length for the role. "Not only am I playing a gender opposite of mine but I am also playing a young child. To get into that world you think about what we identify as youthfulness, and it has a lot to do with energy level and physicality.

"There is something about how the children are in such dark circumstances and I think our production is really trying to show the brutality of that darkness in certain moments. You can see the children are really struggling with survival on the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual level and they want to be youthful and free and liberated but have to suppress it."

The story was turned into an opera by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck and sister Adelheid Wette in 1893, and here the score is composed by local musician and Alaska State Museum Chief Curator Bob Banghart. Banghart's score is performed by local musicians Rob Cohen and Ceann Murphy.

The musical opens with Hansel and Gretel interacting inside the family's house: They sing, they dance, they fight, brood, and laugh. But then the siblings' angry mother (Patricia Hull) soon returns to find no chores done, and chases the children about, knocking over the precariously placed family milk jug and spoiling dinner. The children are then sent out to pick berries, right before the return of their slightly inebriated father (Chris Murray).

Outside Hansel and Gretel eat more berries than they pick until darkness surprises them. Here we meet the Sandman (Christina Apathy, who also plays the Dew Fairy) who quiets the scary voices echoing in the swamp and allows the two children to drift to sleep.

Apathy's voice and that of the witch, Kari Groven, another Norway native, are the singing highlights in the production. Though the whole cast could sing the operatic version, none could do it better than Apathy and Groven.

The casting of Shona Strauser's Young Company performers as spirits and gingerbread men also enlivens the second act. Brita Fagerstrom, Luke Sewell, Reilly Schrader-Dee, Jack White, Duncan Smith, Gillian Smith, Griffin Young, Catherine Marks, Nikki Box, Tate Pollard, Natalie Cosgrove, Coleman Cosgrove, Arne Ellefson, and Lily Otsea play the trapped ginger prisoners visiting the sleeping Hansel and Gretel in the woods and then later emerging from an oven at the witches demise. Their body motion and expression is worth noting. The audience should also note the stick given to a sleeping Hansel - he will need it later.

"Hansel & Gretel" is a multi-layered production. In addition to Henning, Banghart and Cohen, contributors include Oana Botez Ban (Romania) on costumes, Andrea Seidel (Switzerland) as seamstress, Akiko Nishijima Rotch (Japan) as set designer, and Perseverance Art Director Art Rotch on lighting and set.

Director Hegland said that for him the production centers on the relationships of the characters.

"There is something that always interests me in all the work I do," Hegland said. "I figure out where the heart of the production is, and it is very much in the relationship of the people and their dreams and their journeys and relationships.

"Constantly, what I am interested in doing is making the audience realize that their first idea of what something really is isn't necessarily the truth of what something is. The more turns we can create like that, the more exciting it is."

"Hansel & Gretel" is very much about intimacy and seeing clearly. The roots of the story's history is very dark, from the middle ages, a time of starvation and hunger. Yet the cast and crew shine through that darkness in this production.

Or as Weishahn recites, in a verse from the show, "The angels showed in a dream they would look after us, let their reward be a stream of children's laughter."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com



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