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The Arden Children’s Theatre avoids recycling the same old stories, like Snow White, by telling them in fresh, fun ways. While Greg Banks’s two-actor adaptation of the familiar tale may owe its existence in part to modern theater economics, his skill as writer and director makes it brisk viewing that includes a storytelling lesson.
Nastassja Whitman plays the title character until Doug Hara, listed only as “4” in the program, interrupts. Members of the company are missing! He asks the giggling audience, “Has anyone seen six little men?” The show must go on, so they agree to take on all the roles, occasionally interrupting the action to negotiate who plays what.
Humanized, not sanitized
Banks’s 70-minute staging adds details that make Snow White a relatable character — chiefly, that the shut-in yearns to tell jokes. (She cracks some groan-inducing “knock-knock” jokes later.) Meanwhile, the evil queen (usually Whitman, sometimes Hara) asks her mirror who’s the fairest woman in the land, and we know where that leads — when Snow White is old enough, she’s the one, and the queen is angry.
The queen sends a huntsman (Hara) to kill Snow White and return with her liver and lungs as proof. The huntsman, knife gleaming in his hand, hesitates — “I can’t do this if you’re looking at me” — in a surprisingly suspenseful scene. When he gives the queen a pig’s innards instead of the girl’s, she cooks and eats them.
These events seem gruesome out of context, but they’re true to the story and exciting for the audience of children, who appreciate danger (and a good scare) more than adults admit or allow.
Snow White finds a lovely cottage on Christopher Haig’s rustic set (beautifully lit by Amanda Jensen) and is soon adopted by seven little people known only by numbers — hence Hara’s designation as 4. He plays all seven, changing voice, physicality, and the positioning of his cap to make each distinct in the sort of frantic fun performance we’ve come to expect from this fine actor.
“She’s come to us for help, so we have a choice,” their leader, 1, explains — another time when Banks resists talking down to the audience. Doing right is a decision that comes with risks.
The story’s conclusion may surprise those familiar with older, safer, Disney-fied endings. A prince eventually appears, of course, but he’s not the simple solution to a helpless girl’s problems that older generations once accepted. The dwarves are resourceful as well (and great lovers of “knock-knock” jokes).
The Arden always applies first-rate resources to its children’s plays. Natalia De La Torre’s costumes appear simple — a blue skirt designates Snow White, with a white scarf for the Queen, a fancy cape for the prince, one cap for all seven dwarves — but they are carefully crafted and textured.
Daniel Perelstein not only composes the show’s live music, he plays it as well, on cello, harp, trombone, and other instruments — while perched in a tree. He’s also costumed and, without saying a word, is an important creative storytelling voice.
Part of the play’s satisfying ending is the relief and pride Whitman and Hara feel after telling the story by themselves. It’s a great lesson for kids of all ages, perhaps more valuable today than its themes about vanity: we can work together to accomplish something despite the obstacles.
An added treat is the performers’ discussion with the audience after each performance, followed by the opportunity to meet them individually in the lobby. The kids ask, “How did you do that?” Mysteries are explained.
What, When, Where
Snow White. Written and directed by Greg Banks. Through June 10, 2018, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
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