I may be one of the world’s foremost champions of puppetry, juggling and mime, but that doesn’t mean that every hand buried inside a costume gets a rave from this reporter.
And so, it is with a heavy heart that I must issue one of my rare poor notices: the new Puppetworks production of “Hansel & Gretel” is flawed and uninspiring.
Perhaps it is not fair to expect new wine from an old bottle; this 1850s Brothers Grimm story has been told and retold so many times that it’s difficult to make the essential horror of the story — two children forsaken by their impoverished parents and taken prisoner by a cannibalistic witch — feel fresh.
But Puppetworks didn’t do itself any favor by choosing to perform the version of the Grimm story that was turned into an opera in the 1890s by Engelberg “Not the 1960s pop singer” Humperdinck.
The question nags at me like a missing string on a marionette’s shoulder: why use the maudlin and emotionally conflicted opera version when other versions — better versions — are available?
Where the opera presents the woodcutter’s family as poor, but happy, the Grimm story gets to a deeper level of pathos, thanks to a cruel maternal beast who compels her henpecked hubby to abandon their lovely children in the wilderness, where they are set upon by that evil witch.
In Puppetworks’s production, the kids are happy-go-lucky and only find themselves in the witch’s clutches because of an ill-advised outing to pick berries.
What follows is a yawn-inducing version of “Mother’s Song,” in which the kids’ mother moans about her miserable life — a scene that plays out as depressingly as the song itself. The tune is bad enough — “Weary am I/Weary of living./Heaven send help for me” — but forcing a lone marionette to occupy the stage alone, with little but a bobbing head to distract the viewer, makes a mockery of puppetry.
Yes, Ronny Wasserstrom and Jamie Moore pulled the cords with their usual professionalism, but their ability to pull the more important strings — the heartstrings — was unfairly hampered by a story that is dour when it should be upbeat and morose when it should be merely sad.
Even a moment that should have been a show-stopper — the descent of about a dozen glittering angels at the end of Act II — turned into a somber procession. And the protection that the angels supposedly offered the children is thwarted by the witch in the very next act, making the whole thing confusing at best.
And, I must note with regret, Nicolas Coppola’s marionettes were showing signs of wear and tear. It might be time to retire these puppets permanently.
Can the children enjoy this version of “Hansel & Gretel”? Of course they can. But even Puppetworks regulars can easily skip this production and wait for the far superior “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which opens just after Christmas.
“Hansel & Gretel” will run every Saturday and Sunday, through Dec. 21, at 12:30 and 2:30 pm at Puppetworks (338 Sixth Ave., at Fourth Street in Park Slope). Tickets are $8 for adults and $7 for kids. Call (718) 965-3391 for reservations or visit Puppetworks.org.
Trey Dooley is a member of the International Puppetry Hall of Fame (writer’s wing) and is editor emeritus of Modern Marionette magazine.