nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
July 18, 2006
Rabbit Hole Ensemble's mission commits the theater group to a "distinctly minimalist aesthetic that focuses on space, audience, and the performer...to produce a uniquely direct and candid experience." Their current production of The Siblings proves they aren't kidding around. This is a seriously stripped-down production which is effective in its presentation and refreshing in its eschewal of anything not absolutely essential to telling its story. The play itself isn't quite as compelling as the methods used to present it, but it is well worth seeing as a unique, exciting theatrical experience and a reminder of the truth in the oft-repeated, but less-oft practiced, statement - "less is more".
The Siblings is a stark re-telling of the classic story of Hansel and Gretel. The original "children's story" already is complex and disturbing. Two children are abandoned by their parents in order to decrease the mouths to feed in the household. The clever children devise a way to get back home, but they find themselves banished to the woods again by their scheming parents. This time the starving children encounter an old woman living in a fantastical house made of irresistible sweets, situated deep in the forest. The woman lures the children in, locks them up, and begins fattening the emaciated Hansel and Gretel so that she can make a meal of them for herself. The children escape, cooking the witch in her own oven, and return home to find their mother dead and their guilt-ridden father penitent and overjoyed at their return.
Edward Elefterion's script for The Siblings boils the familiar tale down to its dark essence, tweaking some of the details along the way to emphasize the greed, desperation, and betrayal behind the events. It also adds a grim coda to avoid the traditional "happily ever after" ending. The children's encounter with the witch is no longer the centerpiece of the story. Rather, the emphasis is on the moral and emotional turmoil at home and in the complex decisions the brother and sister team must make on their journey.
In line with Rabbit Hole's minimalist aesthetic, there is no set save a single wooden bench. A props person seated at the foot of the stage is present throughout the performance, handing off objects to the actors as needed. This device, like the utter lack of any setting, forces the beholder to be engaged by the drama of the story, the skill of the tellers, and Erin Murphy's rugged-looking costumes.
All of the performers commit fully to the style and the characters. Paul Daily and Amanda Broomell as Hansel and Gretel come off as sad young adults rather than actual kids, and this adds to the macabre tone of the piece. Arthur Aulisi is effectively torn and as he betrays his children and horrified with the aftermath. Kathryn Velvel Jones plays Mother as a kind of Lady Macbeth, deviously manipulating Father and the children. Because the "gingerbread cottage" scene is downplayed in this version of the story, the Old Woman is only on stage for a few minutes. This probably is a good thing, as Catherine Siracusa as the Old Woman isn't entirely convincing. Her characterization doesn't have the layers of intention and subtext played so well by the rest of the ensemble.
The Siblings isn't a groundbreaking or particularly original piece. Surely the classic "children's' tales" by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen have been mined hundreds of times by playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers for deeper meaning and irony. The unusual element here is that the director, author, and performers don't "play" the irony. The Siblings is simply a good story, told clearly by skilled actors, revealing all the rich facets and layers of complex, disturbing human drama contained in it. This revelation provides more thrills than any million-dollar tech-spectacular ever could, and it's worthy of your support.