Hansel and Gretel go solo in a new digital Alberta Musical Theatre production

Bhey Pastolero in Hansel and Gretel, Alberta Musical Theatre Company. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

They’re the most famous brother-sister act in the fairy tale canon, joint stars of a cautionary tale about injudicious junk food consumption in the woods.     

Now Hansel and Gretel are back together again. Closer than ever since this time out they’re being played by the same actor. And in this Alberta Musical Theatre Company digital reinvention of their original 2009 musical, Bhey Pastolero not only plays the song-and-dance siblings, but also the Witch, the Father, the Step-Mother, and Heinrich, a character the Brothers Grimm never quite got around to writing, who’s been lost in the Black Forest for his entire life.

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Safe it certainly is. “Above and beyond safe,” says Farren Timoteo, Alberta Musical Theatre’s artistic director since 2007, of their first venture into the world of digital and digital “touring.” We’re talking about a one-person production, rehearsed and performed upstairs at The Playhouse, in the board room-turned studio space three walls and two doors away from the stage manager, and performed in isolation. “Designed to be COVID restriction-proof,” it’s ready for delivery to screens in school classrooms or at home, for kids (and their grown-up associates).

The company specialty is reimagining fairy tales for kids (and adults), with contemporary and often feminist sass and irony, as the archive of Timoteo collaborations with the late great musical theatre composer Jeff Unger will attest. Musicals for kids, yes, but with grown-up wit to them, and Unger scores of unusual (and very adult) complexity. Timoteo and Unger shared a love of Sondheim; Sweeney Todd, as they often said, was their favourite musical, which explains the sophisticated rhythms and rhyming of many of their shows. Still, there’s something amusingly counter-intuitive about choosing Hansel and Gretel of all the Grimm possibilities for solo treatment. It is, after all, “essentially a two-hander,” as Timoteo concedes, laughing.

Bhey Pastolero in Hansel and Gretel, Alberta Musical Theatre Company. Photo supplied.

“But it had a very direct address narrative style I thought would translate well,” Timoteo says, thinking back to the three-actor 2009 original (revived in 2017). Hansel and Gretel did their own narration, then stepped nimbly back into the action (and the third actor played everyone else in the story).  And Timoteo (who made his own professional debut in an Alberta Musical Theatre touring production of Jack and the Beanstalk, is thinking, too, of the dynamic of his own solo show Made In Italy, “a story about two people, a father and a son, where it’s the storyteller’s responsibility to inhabit all the characters.”

“Jeff had to sell me on Hansel and Gretel,” says Timoteo. “I hadn’t connected to it at all, and I said no many times.” He credits Unger with the narrative premise of hunger: “a family, two kids and their dad, starving in a blighted forest.” The addition to the family unit of a step-mother, that fairy tale classic, makes hunger worse. No wonder the Witch is keen to lure kids to her place, and up the protein content in her diet.

For the new digital one-person version of Hansen and Gretel “I was drawing on the experience I had as a kid in elementary school in the west end of Edmonton, at St. Martha’s,” says Timoteo. “We’d have guest authors reading from their books, and we’d be sitting on the floor in a semi-circle around them.” The goal was that kind of confidential storyteller’s intimacy; “the filming frames the actor from the waist up.”

In 2009 Hansel and Gretel was one of the earliest collaborations of the Timoteo-Unger musical-writing team, “our second piece together,” as Timoteo says. “We’d done Little Red Riding Hood the year before…. We were trying to find our collaborative voice, and we hadn’t found it yet.”

This artistic quest “was informed by how much space we had in the (touring) van, actually,” he says, a smile in his voice.  “So how do we put a candy house in the back of the van? How do we design that? Then we stumbled on (an insight): we were fools to try and bring the full scope of a theatrical set into a school gym…. Here we were, trying to show kids what a candy house looked like, and we had an audience with infinite imagination. We were actually restricting them!”

At the time Timoteo had just seen Catalyst Theatre’s original musical Frankenstein, with its bold stylized physicality and visuals, and the way the actors share the narration while playing all the characters. “I was SO inspired by the atmosphere and storytelling structure and devices, and thought maybe we could do a similar thing for kids…. We’ll use word to paint the images; each of the three actors will be a narrator as well as multiple characters within that world.” An aesthetic was born in that thought.

Costume designer Deanna Finnman, who still works with the company, made spectacular work of the Witch, with “arms that could extend and be inhumanly long.” This time, with the characters visible in torso only, the keynote of Finnman’s costume design is hats, lots and lots of them. For the Witch she used badminton racquets with hair built into them.

“The idea is a shooting gallery of pop-up characters,” says director Timoteo. Pastolero “grabs hats from off the rack, puts them on, takes them, and becomes another character.”

The action happens framed by a little proscenium arch (set designer: Brianna Kolybaba), a deliberately theatrical choice. Timoteo sighs. “I miss theatre; we all do…. Ultimately we opted for painted drops, to feel the texture of theatre. In a theatre-preventing pandemic I feel a sense of comfort when I hear curtain rings (pull) across the pipes.”

“As a director of a digital event I really want it to feel live.”

Hansel and Gretel, starring Bhey Pastolero, is happening on YouTube Live. Information about streaming passes, both for school and home, is available by email (bookings@albertamusicaltheatre.ca), by phone (780-422-3161) or on the website.

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