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[whitespace] Joseph Ribiero A Show With Teeth: A bewigged Joseph Ribiero prepares to unleash her pit bull-poodle mix on fairyland.

Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo

Into the Woods

Shakespeare SC turns Brothers Grimm tale into a merry romp

By Rob Pratt

THINK FOR A MOMENT about the story of Hansel and Gretel. The evil stepmother. Children ditched in the forest by their parents. A wicked witch who yearns to fry up a fattened Hansel. It's ghoulish stuff in almost every character and plot point, and none of it seems even remotely likely to excite the imagination of audiences during the information age, when superstition no longer holds much sway over hope and fear.

But throw in a chorus line of cats, a player in a bear suit, a few dance numbers lifted from a Busby Berkeley musical and Joseph Ribiero in an assortment of feathers, frocks and frowns, and the strange tale starts to make some sense.

At least that's the way Shakespeare Santa Cruz's new adaptation of the Brothers Grimm story morphs a potentially terrifying tale into a charming work of theater. Fittingly, the company tweaks the title a bit to hint at the show's inside-out telling of the traditional story. Gretel &Hansel: A New Twist on an Old Tail marks what is sure to become Shakespeare Santa Cruz's fifth in a streak of hit holiday productions.

As with her adaptation of Cinderella, which the company produced for the past two holiday seasons, Kate Hawley's script for Gretel & Hansel is a marvel of sophisticated wordplay, subtle in-jokes and ingenious rearrangements of the traditional text. The show opens with a prologue done in verse, a diverting fantasy featuring a plumed and go-go-booted Ribiero who literally draws the audience into the action.

Even here, in a preliminary scene meant to ease the audience into the show, Hawley loads the language with double meaning and surprise twists, making allusions to Shakespeare Santa Cruz productions of the past--"What were you expecting?" asks Ribiero as the villainous Carmen Monoxide, "a fairy in a tutu?"--and patronizing rude theatergoers who don't check their beepers and ringers. "Leave those cell phones on," Monoxide tells the audience as the opening scene goes to blackout and a shimmer of electronic bleeps whisks the audience to fairyland for the beginning of the story.

As a counterweight to the grim original, Hawley weaves into Gretel & Hansel a comic subplot featuring Tom Cat (Mike Ryan). This tuxedoed Tom is a smooth operator who consoles Hansel and Gretel by day and sings and dances by night while club hopping with a catty crowd of glamour pusses. When he's not conveniently showing up in the story to rescue Hansel and Gretel, Tom drops in to the scene simply to work the crowd for comic relief--even signing autographs outside the theater during intermission.

Unfortunately, composer Craig Bohmler's score doesn't cut as cleanly as Hawley's razor-sharp words. The all-original songs in Gretel & Hansel include jazzy production numbers ("Cattin' Around") and heartfelt ballads ("Lullaby") that sound straight out of the standard Broadway songbook.

Bohmler's melodies often feel out-of-step with Hawley's words, as if the broad strokes of his musical statements don't mesh with the precise rhythm and inflection of her lyrics. Still, Bohmler creates many unique musical textures with a minimal but capable orchestra (drums, bass, piano and reeds), and audiences will immediately recognize and identify with the music even though the songs are new.

The action centers on the castoff children, but Ribiero in his various guises and Ryan as Tom Cat steal the show. As in Cinderella, the cross-dressed Ribiero earns laughs from playing over-the-top characters. His Carmen Monoxide vamps like an amped-up hybrid of a Vegas showgirl and Dr. Frankenfurter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

As the evil stepmother, Ivana B. Sweet, Ribiero spouts Bette Davis ("What a dump!") and gleefully unleashes her pooch--an ill-tempered pit bull and poodle mix--on the meddling Tom Cat. As the wicked witch, Ribiero revels when Gretel rises to an epithet-spitting fury.

Ryan's Tom Cat oozes savoir-faire. He coyly croons, "You're cream cheese and lox/ a litter box/ you're purrfect to me," to soothe a distraught Gretel. He dons "top hat and tail" for a night out and saves the day with a trick learned during a former life as a cat burglar.

Amid the song and dance, the camp and the cavalcade of gags, Lauren Creager and Casey Jackson play Gretel and Hansel with winning enthusiasm. The perfectly cast pair bring a wide-eyed wonder to the show that charms the rough edges off the fairy tale's incredulous plot twists.

"We're so hungry, we're delirious," declares a breathless Jackson when Hansel spies the wicked witch's candy-covered house. "It seems kind of funny to be eating someone's roof," adds Creager, cocking her head and scrunching her face at the audience. The supporting players, often doing double or triple duty as villagers, cats and crows, sing and dance with sure pitch and poise.

Glynn Bartlett's sets, B. Modern's fanciful costumes and Terry J. Barto's choreography make Gretel & Hansel a vibrant visual spectacle that moves with the fast pace and balanced delivery Shakespeare Santa Cruz audiences have come to expect from Paul Whitworth's direction.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Gretel & Hansel: A New Twist on an Old Tail, an adaptation of the fairy tale by Kate Hawley with original music by Craig Bohmler, runs at 7pm on various weekdays and at 1 and 6pm Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 16 at the Mainstage, Theatre Arts Center, UCSC, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28 general, $22 senior and student, $15 children 12-and-under. (459.2159)

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From the November 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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