Steve Kettley, Joel Sanderson, and Tommy Joe Mullins
in Hansel and Gretel
(© Douglas McBride)
Steve Kettley, Joel Sanderson, and Tommy Joe Mullins
in Hansel and Gretel
(© Douglas McBride)
The Brothers Grimm's classic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel sparks to vibrant and spooky life in Gill Robertson's sometimes spooky, sometimes kitschy, and always beautifully performed environmental staging playing at the New Victory Theatre.

Audiences follow the pair of children who are abandoned in the woods by their wicked stepmother (Cath Whitefield) and sweet, but henpecked, father (Steve Kettley, who doubles on saxophone to play his original score for the show) throughout the building. After gathering in the theater's lower lobby -- festooned with black mesh and a smattering of trees (designer Karen Tennent is responsible for the incredible environments) -- theatergoers are led into the basement where they wander through the kids' messy bedroom and into the family's 1970s era living room.

Mom (who looks a bit like a malevolent Mary Richards thanks to Alison Brown's shrewd costuming) is delighting that she's gotten rid of the kids. She puts on "Bye Bye Baby" and gleefully shoves the kids' toys into a hefty bag. But soon, Hansel (Tommy Joe Mullins) and Gretel (Ashley Smith) come home, following the trail of pebbles that Hansel's left in the forest. After some manipulative off-stage arguing (which garners one of the biggest laughs in the production), the family's back off into the woods, and so is the audience.

Next, theatergoers are led back upstairs and through the space which, thanks to the décor, Jeanine Davies' bombastically eerie lighting, and Tom Zwitserlood's creepy woodland soundscape, is an outdoorsy house of horrors with a downtown edge: a "glade" underneath the theater's stage is adorned with hundreds of maimed plastic dolls.

Ultimately, one lands in a more tranquil section of the "forest" (actually a platform built over a section of the orchestra seating), and soon, the witch's home is revealed. And it's the final third of Hansel and Gretel that soars, thanks to Whitefield's daring turn as the witch, who transforms from a sweet, doddering little German woman into a ravenous fury. As the crone's hunger for Hansel grows, Whitefield's performance takes on a passion that would be worthy of Greek tragedy.

Mullins and Smith imbue the title characters with a charming innocence, a somewhat annoying bratty quality and, most important, an honest innocence. Particularly enjoyable is Mullins' turn as Hansel. Vast portions of the piece are performed without dialogue and Mullins' ability to communicate with his face is a true delight: if silent movies were still being made, he'd have a ready-made career.