The holidays in Humboldt wouldn't be the same without the fun and frolicking of Dell'Arte's annual holiday show, an hour of nonstop high-energy, story-driven entertainment that has something for everyone. Back in September, Dell'Arte's challenged its third-year MFA students to come up with a concept that could be produced with the number of actors available (five), carry a topical message in a fun package (as all good fairytales do) and be delivered to a broad audience kept home by COVID-19.
The Brothers Grimm's Hansel and Gretel fit the bill perfectly. There are five characters — Hansel and Gretel, their parents and the wicked witch in the woods — while the theme of food security and resource inequity delivers a topical message. The cast has been able to work together (and perform) unmasked because the student body is podded together, but some of the more creative delivery ideas (drive-in presentations, staging the entire show on the back of a flat-bed truck) were nixed by insurance and weather risks. In the end, a combination of Facebook Live streaming and a partnership with KEET-TV is delivering the public performances, while school shows are being carried over Zoom, with activity-based study guides provided for download.
Hansel and Gretel begins with a bang as the witch (Dustin Curry, resplendent in glitzy robe and pantaloons) appears in a cloud of smoke, summoning the players to the stage while reciting part of the witches' incantation from Macbeth. Hansel (Oscar Nava in delightfully goofy form) and Gretel (a comically didactic Laura Murillo Hart) bemoan their lack of food while setting the table. Sadly, all their mother (Julieta Garza, carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders) and father (a downtrodden and defeated Nate FitzSimons) can produce for supper is one grain of rice each, with a quarter slice of bread for dessert. Hansel's offer of berries from the forest is met with deep suspicion.
Clearly, this is not a sustainable model for a happy life but the only solution the parents can come up with is to kick the kids out and let them fend for themselves — after all, they're not doing so great at home. But the children overhear this discussion and decide to pre-empt things by taking off themselves, along with the last of their mother's precious bread. But rather than eating the bread, they leave a trail in the hopes that their parents will follow and find them someday.
But as luck would have it — or so they think — Hansel and Gretel come upon a house deep in the woods that's made entirely of food. The kind of food they've never seen before, all of it stolen from their village by a wicked witch who is clearly channeling her inner doomsday prepper and is equipped with the largest roll of toilet paper the world has ever seen. Atop the house — accessible via a staircase made of canned tuna and Oreos —– sits a giant microwave oven. Just the right size to cook a "free-range beast on two legs."
Fast-forward to a well-fattened Hansel being slathered with butter by Gretel, who's fallen under the witch's spell and does her every bidding, up to and including cooking her brother for dinner. But thanks to a little sleight of hand and a lot of slip-sliding around, the remote button on the giant microwave gets pressed at the wrong time and hey, presto, it's melted witch for dinner! Cue happy ending as the exhausted parents finally reunite with their children, everyone forgives each other, Hansel's berries turned out to be delicious after all and the family resolves to return all the stolen food to the village so everyone can eat.
The scenic and costume design by Lynnie Horrigan is quite wonderful, especially the witch's house, and James Hildebrandt works his usual technical magic. Michael Foster delivers some dramatic lightning, and Miguel Sevilla's sound design completes the funny-scary atmosphere. The music is a great illustration of the Dell'Arte famiglia at work — one number is repurposed from co-founder Jane Hill's libretto for Opera Omaha's production of Hansel and Gretel and another is drawn from staffer Jo Pritchett's band Iron Rain. Michael Fields directs with his usual flair, ably assisted by Carlos Gallegos, and production manager Alexander Diaz keeps everything moving along.
Hansel and Gretel delivers some spectacular antics, a lot of laughs and a timely reminder that children's innate curiosity comes up with solutions that adults, conditioned to see the world through a particular lens, cannot. For young children, it remains an entertaining fairytale with a happy ending, while older children and adults will appreciate the deftly incorporated parallels with societal challenges in the world today.
Dell'Arte's big, exaggerated style of physical theatre is well suited to digital delivery (I'd recommend a good-sized screen for Facebook Live) and should come across well on television. However you choose to experience Hansel and Gretel, Dell'Arte style, you can show your appreciation for the cast and crew by making a donation to the school at www.dellarte.com or to Food for People at www.foodforpeople.org, since the usual food drive is not possible during the pandemic.
Catch Hansel and Gretel on Facebook Live (www.facebook.com/dellarteinternational/) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday Dec. 4 and Saturday, Dec. 5, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 6. KEET-TV (Channel 13) will broadcast the show at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, and 1 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 28.
Pat Bitton (she/her) is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes.