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I dislike stories for children that oversimplify life and talk down to them. Children can tell when we're condescending, and sugarcoating a story to “protect” their sensibilities doesn't prepare them for life. Kids are like the rest of us: They like drama with suspense and stakes, and can handle the fact that life isn't easy — they see the world anyway, no matter how much we try to hide it.
I could be wrong, of course, and many would insist that I am because I don't have my own children. One of life's unwritten rules is that a childless person cannot understand children, and that all people who procreate are instant and total child experts.
From this imperfect point of view, I consider the Arden Children's Theatre's Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates an ambitious production that does not condescend.
Not brutal, but honest
Not that it's in any way scary or brutal, but Laura Eason's adaptation of Mary Mapes Dodge's 1865 novel doesn't obscure the Brinker family's poverty, or the terrible injury that caused father Raff Brinker's incapacitation, or the derision directed at the Brinker children by their peers.
Brian Ratcliffe and Lauren Hirte play Hans and Gretel Brinker, skating through Holland on handmade wooden skates because they can't afford metal like everyone else; nor do they have winter coats. Their mother (Rachel Camp) cares for their father (Ed Swidey), who suffered a debilitating head injury 10 years ago. With the help of new friend Heidi (Ciji Prosser), Gretel wants to enter a race to win silver skates; meanwhile, Hans seeks help from a famous doctor (Steven A. Wright) for his father. Camp and Matteo Scammell also play the children's peers.
Eason's adaptation combines these elements and more into a compact play that, while sometimes feeling rushed and lacking suspense (don’t tell me you don’t know who wins the race!), doesn't shy away from the story's darker elements. Poverty, injury, pride, and bullying are all rendered emotionally real by director Whit MacLaughlin's strong cast.
It's not a grim story, but one that's honest and relevant to today's world. I hope this doesn't scare away anyone — parents, that is. I know kids won’t mind.
First-rate production values
As always with the Arden's annual holiday season production for children, the production is first-rate. David P. Gordon's set features a comma-shaped ice-blue platform and a vast sky the same wintry color, conveying cold and sleekness, ably lit by Thom Weaver. Five turning windmills frame the action, and snow falls. The surface is slick enough for a clever type of stage skating on felt-bottomed slippers that allow the actors to maintain control and switch instantly from sliding to walking. Rosemarie E. McKelvey's wintry costumes suggest the period and delineate the characters' fortunes, clearly.
Jay Ansill provides lovely live accompaniment on harp, violin, mandolin, and piano with original compositions, with the cast joining in to play and sing.
MacLaughlin's production contains enough stage magic to wow the kids but focuses on the family story, which ends happily through satisfying efforts. The humor, like the drama, is sincere and never forced; the production achieves a tone that engages kids and adults alike without talking down or glossing over.
All Arden Children's Theatre productions — even opening night — feature a post-show discussion with the cast, where kids ask a lot of "How did you do that?" questions, plus a meet-and-greet in the lobby. Both put kids directly in touch with the actors as people and provide insight into how productions work, with the bonus of teaching kids that live theater is an art that people like them can, and do, create. It's great fun to see how much not just the kids, but the actors, enjoy these interactions.
A note for parents
Please, trust your kids to watch and listen. Every time I see an Arden children’s show, I sit in front of a parent who feels he or she has to explain everything in profound teacherly whispers. Usually, the child doesn’t initiate discussion, it’s the parent — and when it is the child, the parent should end the talking until an appropriate time.
I know, I know, since I don’t have kids I don’t know anything and don’t have the right to say this — but as a ticketholder trying to enjoy the play, I think the rules of good playgoing aren’t suspended for adults because they’re with kids. Allow them to share an experience without your constant commentary, and maybe they’ll grow up to think independently — or at least to be quiet during plays.
What, When, Where
Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates by Laura Eason. Whit MacLaughlin directed. Through January 31, 2016, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
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