Based on the dark and disturbing folktales of the Brothers Grimm, James Stover’s original world-premiere adaptation for the Renegade Company, GRIMMS’ JUNIPER TREE, examines the role that didactic children’s literature plays in defining our moral judgments, our personal choices, and our character. By interweaving pieces of the iconic 19th-century “Hausmärchen” with a contemporary take on “Hansel and Gretel,” Stover redefines for our times the opposing forces of good and evil, the fear of strangers that is, with good reason, engrained in us from an early age, and the option we all have to decide to live “happily ever after.”
Contrasting innocence with brutality, the time-honored morals are conveyed through a combination of storytelling, enactments, and shadow-puppets, as post-modern twins Hans (Shamus Hunter McCarty) and Greta (Rebecca Vail) make their way through the woods and encounter a sweet young boy (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen) abused by his wicked stepmother, a posturing princess (Dana Kreitz) fleeing the wrath of her murderous husband, and a diabolical imp (Matthew Mastronardi) spinning straw into gold for a miller and his daughter, in updated deconstructions of “The Juniper Tree,” “Bluebeard,” and “Rumpelstiltskin” (with minor references to “Tom Thumb,” “Cinderella,” and others thrown into the mix). Stover’s writing style and the cast’s delivery are simple and childlike, archaic (“Just yonder”) versus current (“Whatever”), as if spoken by or to kids from then and now, who intersect in time and space.
Director M. Craig Getting, in keeping with Stover’s script and the ensemble-based design, does not distract with graphic blood, gore, and gratuitous violence, but focuses instead on the serious messages inherent in the sinister stories, intended to teach important life lessons, and on passages of rhymes and humor (“It’s looking a little grim”) to alleviate the terror. The most horrific episodes are presented as a shadow-puppet play (puppetry by Daniel Kontz and Robin Stramey) or out of the audience’s sight. Renegade’s artistic team enhances the popular parables with a haunting original soundscape of live cello music (composed and performed by Evan McGonagill) and song (by Jim Stanton), and a sparse scenic design (Kontz and Stamey) that requires the viewer to imagine the dense forest through which the characters move. Splendid costumes by Becca Austin combine elements of history and fantasy, and a magnificent feathered bird puppet, skillfully worked by Stanton-Ameisen, conjures a fairytale quality of awe and magic.
As part of its Unconventional Community Collaboration Series, Renegade offers a unique sensory experience for the audience in partnership with The Random Tea Room. Infusing a custom blend of Lapsang Souchong into the printed program, its scent of pine-smoked black tea, birch, and juniper berries evokes the woodiness of the story’s setting. The company is also collaborating with the Mütter Museum in conjunction with its exhibition on Grimms’ Anatomy, offering a pre-show conversation at the museum and a talkback with Mütter staff and Grimm scholar/folklorist Linda Lee after the show on February 6. January 29-February 8, 2014, www.therenegadecompany.org.