The story of Hansel and Gretel — as popularized by the Brothers Grimm — has always been grim indeed. It is, after all, a tale of child abandonment, cannibalism and elder immolation.
But Montreal's Le Carrousel may have actually managed to make it even grimmer with their take, Gretel and Hansel, which closes Manitoba Theatre for Young People's season.
In their two-person play, Gretel is a resentful older sister, enraged by the arrival of little Hansel when she's just 13 months old. As she discovers she no longer commands the attention of her parents, she begins to wonder how she can rid herself of this tiny invader.
From there, the basic beats of the story may be familiar — the children are abandoned by their impoverished parents in the woods, where they eventually stumble upon the candy house of a witch who fattens poor Hansel up to make a meal of him.
But the element of sibling rivalry taken to an extreme — to the point where Gretel debates whether to save her younger brother from the hungry hag — makes the familiar story darker still.
The saving grace of Gervais Gaudreault's production is some spectacular design work. The high chairs of Stéphane Longpré's elegantly simple set are cleverly used to create everything from a tangled, spooky forest to the kindling of the witch's raging fire. Dominique Gagnon's striking lighting design throws eerie shadows over the stage, while Diane Labrosse's sound design makes noises as innocent as a baby's cries or the hoots of an owl deeply unsettling.
As Gretel and Hansel, Émilie Lévesque and Jean-Philip Debien give tightly focused performances, committing themselves to the intensity of story.
But Suzanne Lebeau's adaptation (translated from French by John Van Burek) is problematic. While it has a deeper point to make about familial bonds — and how we learn to love the people we're forced to live with — its chief issue is that it's simply overwritten.
For example, while sibling resentment is a fairly easily understood thing, Gretel's opening monologue about her growing dislike for "the little brother," as she calls him, belabours the point. Indeed, Gretel and Hansel suffers throughout from a lot more "telling" than "showing."
The other issue here is who the target audience is — and who it will appeal to. The hour-long show is likely too slow and much too intense for young kids, but the subject matter might be too childish for the teens, and even adults, who might better appreciate its dark tone and impressive staging.
While there's much to like in this stylish retelling of a classic story, Gretel and Hansel may simply be a fairy tale that's a bit too grim for its own good.
Gretel and Hansel runs at Manitoba Theatre for Young People until April 29.