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The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness

Carla Ching's excellent new play is an update on Hansel and Gretel. logo
Ali Ahn and Christopher Larkin in
The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness
(© Web Begole)
In her excellent new work, The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, now being presented by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company at the Connelly Theatre, playwright Carla Ching updates Hansel and Gretel by reinventing the Witch as Barbara ("Baba") Yaga, a reform school director who seems to have lifted her methodology from the Nurse Ratched rulebook: Play nice, or suffer the consequences.

Into Baba's orbit -- played by Cindy Cheung with cold efficiency masquerading as professionalism -- a defiant new enrollee awaits: the hoodie-shrouded and aggressively slumped 17-year-old Greta (Ali Ahn). She is in juvie for setting fire to her uncle's East Village apartment, where she and her 16-year-old brother Han (Christopher Larkin) were sent after their adoptive father died and their adoptive mother succumbed to a crippling depression. In a way, the pair -- who remember their own mother's death in China -- find themselves doubly orphaned.

Baba knows the girl's tragic backstory, but her first order of business is to break Greta's spirit -- starting by confiscating her cellphone. (Greta has been tweeting to the audience, via surtitle, ruminations on the theme "what do you do when you lose something you can never get back?") So she calls in Miles (Bjorn Dupaty), a gold-star-decorated lackey, to demonstrate the kind of compliance she expects. The minute they have a moment alone, Miles tries to school the ever more combative Greta in how to go along to get along. She adapts -- until she snaps.

Interestingly, in keeping with the dual nature of the folkloric Baba Yaga, Ching accords this Baba a measure of wisdom as well as menace. During conferences with Greta's new family (David Spangler, credible as a veteran rock journalist, and April Matthis, luminous as his young wife, herself a survivor of foster care), Baba Yaga actually has some valid insights to impart.

Also telling is Ching's choice to have the actress playing Baba also assume the guise of Greta's two mothers during Greta's hallucinatory flashbacks. In the end, Greta's story is one of a long-overdue reintegration, however painfully accomplished.

Director Daniella Topol adds some ingenious visual touches, such as having Baba encircle her therapeutic milieu with a chalk stick, as if marking her territory. While honoring the occasionally fanciful nature of the script, Topol also elicits grounded performances from her uniformly excellent cast.

Greta and Han have the chokehold attachment of siblings joined against the world. Han -- chafing at being pigeonholed as the "good" child -- has chosen music (guitar) as his means of expression, and Larkin is a relaxed marvel when rendering the songs he composed for his role.

As Greta, a self-professed "poet," Ahn summons a roiling mass of conflicting emotions. She's adolescence personified. While this play should appeal to those still mired in that phase, it offers plenty of material worth pondering for adults who've presumably gotten over it.

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