Los Angeles Theater Review: HANSEL & GRETEL BLUEGRASS (24th Street Theatre)

by Jason Rohrer on November 7, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: HANSEL & GRETEL BLUEGRASS (24th Street Theatre)

FAIRY TALE THEATER

Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams are a theater couple. They’ve been putting up shows for a long time. If you and your love dream of having your own space and staging your own stuff, you’d do well to study 24th Street Theatre.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s not just a playhouse. It’s a neighborhood forum, its doors flung wide to the same people that prompted nearby University of Southern California to hide behind a wall. Maybe USC should have impressed local gangsters with its depth of commitment to community, as Devine and McAdams did: Their theater is one of the safest spots in town.

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24th Street is a place you can come if your parents are fighting, if you need to do your homework, if you need a job. Youth are the prime focus here. 10,000 schoolkids come to learn about art every year, and some of them return as teenagers to get on the payroll parking cars and selling snacks, ushering, sweeping up. The theater regularly travels to El Salvador on behalf of the embassy, cementing bonds with the neighborhood’s Central American immigrant population. A thousand people showed up to last week’s Día de los Muertos festivities.

So, youngster, how can you keep putting up shows for twenty years in one spot? One way is to find out what your community needs and serve it up.

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But 24th Street remains very much a theater. 2013’s Walking the Tightrope ran forever and still travels. 2015’s Man Covets Bird got some NEA money and is up for a host of awards this year. And, now playing, Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass has a movie star in it.

Okay, Bradley Whitford’s performance is recorded and projected, but still. He plays a Depression-era radio DJ who tells the ancient story with some Kentucky limestone flavoring. L.A. bluegrass band The Get Down Boys assists, again with recorded performances. But the titular brother and sister are live, and so is the witch who charms them after their father loses his job at the coal mine and abandons his hungry spawn in the woods of Butcher Holler.

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Caleb Foote and Angela Giarratana are young adults, but they embody all the dismissive contempt of adolescent siblings. Devine, who developed the show with writer Bryan Davidson, tends to cast angular girls with a lot of native sexuality; Giarratana sings, scowls, places her feet, like a wary feral cat. Her Gretel takes to the woods, and to Sarah Zinsser’s blind mountain woman, with more alacrity than Foote’s Hansel, who remains sullen and stubborn – with good reason, as it turns out. And they learn to lean on one another, to appreciate each other for their differences and for their essential commonalities.

Keith Mitchell’s muslin cave of a set, eerily lighted by Dan Weingarten, also reflects Matthew Hill’s locale and prop projections, which are as ubiquitous but not as frequently interactive as in Man Covets Bird. Devine likes multi-media theater more than I do, but in the most tech-heavy shows she never lets technique outshine the storytelling.

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In keeping with 24th Street’s family-friendly mission, Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass is a show that can be enjoyed by adults, but probably not as much as by kids. The story is very simple, the acting very straightforward, the pitch impossible not to hit. It’s a pleasant spectacle, and the action – for the most part – is accessibly theatrical. There is some business around a well that struck me as too facile for a smart show, a problem of egress and ingress solved not quite as creatively as I would have expected of a production years in the making. It doesn’t matter much. The kids won’t mind.

What are they here for, anyway? Why do you take kids to the theater? Is it for the same reasons you go? Are we looking for the same thing? Do we want the same thing? Should we? Can we? Wonderment, dazzle, teachable moment: Is that all art offers to either of us?

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It’s interesting to me that since the transportive angst of Walking the Tightrope, Devine has staged her stories in less perilous worlds. Tightrope‘s little girl only dealt with the death of a grandparent, but the consequences seemed much greater for her than for Devine’s Hansel and Gretel. Maybe throwing a kid down a well was too potentially traumatic, inspiring a pullback from Tightrope‘s existential malaise. Maybe, too, the writing just isn’t as strong, Davidson’s characters not as well-developed, his world not as specific as the one Mike Kenny’s spare dialogue inspired from Devine. And it must be said that Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass is a remarkably stiff title.

Regardless, this is a fine show. It is a better show than you can see most places, better than one I saw recently on a much bigger budget at a theater company ten times as large, better than one I saw later that day at a smaller theater. It helps me to know that a place like 24th Street exists, that a theater couple decided to become educators and ambassadors as well as artists, that they became the change they want their art to inspire. In a world where, I heard this morning, thousands of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children are awaiting deportation from France, I need to know that people like Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to their door.

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photos by Cooper Bates

Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass
24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th Street
Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on December 11, 2016 EXTENDED to May 21, 2017
for tickets, call 213.745.6516 or visit 24th Street

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