Out of the Woods

The Siblings, Rabbit Hole Ensemble's riff on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel," is an eerily resonant theatrical meditation on the power and pitfalls of faith. Presented according to a stripped-down aesthetic that the company's artistic director, Edward Elefterion, calls "Theater of Essence," the production enchants with minimal artifice or technical assistance. This adaptation, written and directed by Elefterion, finds the title characters and their parents the apparently lone human inhabitants of a barren planet, taking direction from Him, a voice that speaks in dreams and directs them in their survival. Family unity dissolves, however, when He instructs Mother to leave her children in the dangerous woods, and tells daughter Gretel to avoid going into the woods at all. The foursome's faith effectively pits the parents against their own children.

The ensemble is uniformly strong. Kathryn Velvel Jones (Mother) displays the slippery manipulativeness of the self-righteous. As the father figure, Arthur Aulisi invites the trust of his children and the audience alike, but displays range enough to cue us when something is amiss.

Paul Daily's Hansel is childlike without sacrificing the knowing air of the older brother and the scientist—though science here consists of the foresight to drop those reflective rocks as a path to lead the siblings home the first time they are left for dead. Catherine Siracusa imbues the Old Woman with such a fiendish delight that she convinces the audience—if only for just a second—that a little boy and girl would make a very delectable meal.

It would be remiss, however, not to note the especially memorable quality of Amanda Broomell's turn as Gretel. Without upstaging her cast mates, she utilizes each facial expression, gesture, or word to draw the audience deeper into the ensemble's sweetly spun fairy-tale world.

Elefterion's minimal-design aesthetic makes a virtue of the technical limitations typically expected in productions at a festival. The performers are lighted by a few low-tech clip-on footlights, and the starkness contributes to the production's overall feeling of barrenness. A bench is the show's single set piece.

The black-clad Emily Surabian, credited along with the performers as "Props" in the playbill, sits in front of the stage and provides normal stage crew assistance (such as moving the bench) in full view of the audience. Additionally, she walks onstage to hand the performers the few necessary props and provides a few blatantly human-made sound effects.

The one design concession Elefterion makes is to wardrobe. Costumer Erin Murphy sets the tone and location with an aesthetic that can be described as postapocalyptic chic. Gretel's schoolgirl uniform is tattered and accompanied by legwarmers. Hansel sports a preppy look, though his blazer's sleeves appear to have met an unfortunate demise.

Only one incongruity provides a brief distraction from the show's spell. Immediately following a scene in which the family bemoans the lack of any living animals for them to hunt and eat, especially pheasants, Hansel and Gretel find themselves abandoned in the woods. As in the original, Hansel had believed that a trail of dropped breadcrumbs would lead them home, but Gretel reminds him of the birds. "The birds thank you," she remarks with no hint of irony, quashing her brother's hopes. At this performance, some audience members looked about quizzically, as if to ask, "What birds?"

This is of small consequence, though, within the context of the production's significant accomplishments. The woods are a dark and dangerous place here, but fortunately for theatergoers, we have the Rabbit Hole Ensemble to guide us.

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