The witch in the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" lures children by acting all sweet on the outside at first, concealing the raging appetite she harbors inside. The ART Institute production of "Hansel and Gretel," at the Loeb Drama Center, takes that duality a step further: Its witch, named Mildred, is literally two-faced.
"When the audience sees the witch, they're going to see this extremely feminine older lady who has long hair and a dress," says Ashruf "Osh" Ghanimah, the actor who plays Mildred.
But they're also going to see and hear her beastly inner self, thanks to a puppet face like an ugly Muppet that appears on her belly and voices her true desires.
The concept began with the idea of the witch's dual nature as the play was shaped early this fall. There was even talk of having two actors play the witch's different sides, Ghanimah says.
Eventually, though, puppet designer Michael Kane and costume designer Mallory Frers created a costume for the witch that includes eyes and a mouth for her talking, "ogre-like" stomach. Ghanimah, who speaks the dialogue for both sides of Mildred, uses his hands to make the stomach-mouth move by means of strings and mechanics. But he's not really trying to conceal his efforts.
"I've seen 'Avenue Q' maybe eight times," he says, "and what I think is brilliant about that show is, the audience is aware you're watching an actor operate a puppet for the first couple minutes, and after you become desensitized to it, you forget about the mechanism of the puppet" and just focus on the character's actions and feeling.
"You will sort of be consumed, no pun intended, by this puppet's voracious appetite and its evil needs," he says.
Of course, working with a two-faced character requires a little more of the rest of the cast. "We did have to choreograph it pretty carefully, so we were clear when we were responding to the puppet and when we were responding to him," says Sarah Beth Roberts, who plays Gretel. "It's fun because it's two totally different aspects of Osh, but both totally real. It's like dealing with Siamese twins, almost."
The intent is to be funny and a little bit scary, too. Ghanimah and Roberts are students at the ART Institute, the graduate training program of the American Repertory Theater. The production, with fellow student Robert Torres as Hansel, is directed by ART artistic associate Allegra Libonati, whose production of "The Snow Queen," based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale and featuring Kane-designed puppets, was a success last year.
The new show "has so many of the same team members and a lot of the same heart," says Libonati.
In the familiar fairy tale, first published by the Brothers Grimm, siblings Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the forest. They are captured and nearly eaten by a witch, whose deliciously sugary house turns out to be a trap. The ART version was scripted by Kenneth Molloy, with music by Brandon Magid and lyrics by Liana Stillman.
"They're dealing with really deep psychological fears, I think, for both children and adults. Andersen is doing the same thing, but his fairy tales are from his own mind and his own life, and have a more sort of romantic notion to them," Libonati says. "Whereas the Brothers Grimm wrote down these stories that had been passed along and passed along, and it is a much harsher depiction of the world, and the bad guys are really mean.
"The Snow Queen, we almost had to beef her up a bit to make her a suitable villain, but my God, this witch in 'Hansel and Gretel,' we're just trying to find ways to make her funny and engaging because . . . it really deals with some serious situations."
With the witch and the talking stomach-ogre, will the show be too scary for little kids?
"I think 3 years old is the balance point," says Libonati. "If you have a large family and you have a 3-year-old and they want to come with you, then they certainly can and they'll probably love it. But if you have a frightened 3-year-old, we found with 'The Snow Queen' that it might have been a little too much. For 4, 5, 6, I think that it's going to be really wonderful."
Roberts, who says playing Gretel involves channeling her "inner child," found out at the very beginning of rehearsals that she was pregnant.
"I had really bad morning sickness, so I had to take it easy the first week or two, which thankfully everyone was very supportive and understanding about." The upside, she says, "is that it's really fun for me to do a children's show, knowing I have one growing inside."
Libonati teaches fairy tale theater for children 4 through 8 on Saturday mornings at the ART, and she's had her fall classes come to watch run-throughs of "Hansel and Gretel."
"They were standing up and shouting back at the witch and having a good time with it," she says. "Going to the show is about being brave. And we give them all spirit sticks, and they come and decorate their spirit stick, and you've got your spirit stick to help you be brave and strong."
Barrington Stage’s season
Barrington Stage Company has announced most of its 2013 season in Pittsfield, featuring a main-stage production of "On the Town" (June 12-July 13) directed by Tony Award winner John Rando ("Urinetown") and choreographed by Emmy Award winner Josh Bergasse ("Smash"). Chaim Potok and Aaron Posner's "The Chosen" runs July 18-Aug. 3, and the company's first-ever Shakespeare play, "Much Ado About Nothing," follows Aug. 8-25. The St. Germain Stage season opens with the American premiere of "Bashir Lazhar" by Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Chenelière, running May 22-June 8. Also in the lineup is the world premiere of Mark St. Germain's drama "Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah," Aug. 15-Sept. 29. The company will continue its Musical Theatre Lab with Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins's "Southern Comfort," July 19-Aug. 10.
New Huntington fellows
The Huntington Theatre Company has formally unveiled its 2012-14 group of playwriting fellows: Lila Rose Kaplan ("Wildflower"), Walt McGough ("The Farm" and "Priscilla Dreams the Answer"), and Lenelle Moïse ("Merit").