The New Vic continues its annual tradition of scaring the hell out of any kid lucky enough to take in its Halloween show. This year’s model is a full-blown haunted-house reworking of “Hansel and Gretel,” sporting a script that embellishes the already grim story with some freaky new bits and a surprising enthusiasm for the Bay City Rollers. Mother Goose-meets-“Wicker Man” show is just barely age-appropriate for the older end of the New Vic aud, but crackerjack tech aspects (especially sound design) may result in parents accidentally teaching kids a few words they’ll have to explain afterward.
Weak-kneed theatergoers need not apply. The 70-seat max is mandated by the first room into which ushers lead the audience, where viewers stand along the wall of a 1970s-style dwelling. The reasons behind designer Karen Tennent’s period setting are a little inscrutable — likely they’re dictated by the show’s bouncy musical selections, prominently featuring the BCRs, in both recorded and instrumental form, and Sister Sledge. Leaving aside the question of why 1975, the set is creepily perfect: Era-specific toys and boardgames lie strewn around the room, an ugly couch sits in front of an old television, and the Evil Stepmother (Cath Whitefield) dances to “Bye Bye Baby” with a lamp that matches the song.
Mostly improv show capitalizes on the vague unease that goes hand-in-hand with being too close to the actors. When the Stepmother finally figures out how to get rid of the kids, that unease blossoms into full-blown terror as all three televisions (two of them hitherto unnoticed) blast images of increasingly panicked kids unable to find their way out of the deep, dark woods.
We are then led through those woods and treated to a dozen unseen (but noisy) horrors that squawk and growl as we creep up the stairs into what used to be the New Vic’s mezzanine and is now cobwebbed with thin, black material. Through it, we can see Hansel (Tommy Joe Mullins) and Gretel (Ashley Smith) in the distance, cowering by the fire where their parents abandoned them.
Oddly, the really scary stuff here is not the Witch (Whitefield again) but the tunnel that leads through the theater’s basement and up onto the stage where we sit in the gingerbread house to watch the finale. The passageway is filled with broken baby dolls, either smeared with red paint or strung from the ceiling like sausage links, suggesting we are in the Witch’s larder. It’s scary and weird as only the best children’s stories can be.
The house is also pretty cool, especially when it appears out of nowhere. A surprising amount of the prop food is edible and consequently gets thrown at the delighted aud; when the Witch comes on, there’s a chase scene over and around the mounds of sweets. Once the kids go to bed (Mullins and Smith act an unmistakable sugar crash), Whitefield strips down to costumer Alison Brown’s prize creation: hairy boots, a tatty cloak made of rabbit pelts and child parts, and scary red contacts. The kids eventually push her into the oven, as we know they will, but the lady with the red eyes is probably the part of the play most youngsters will take home with them.
Perfs are very good, especially considering the level of concentration necessary to stay in character in front of 70 people, at least 30 of whom are at navel level, saying things like, “Why is he doing that?” and “I don’t like her.” Whitefield has the most to do and is more fun as the stepmom and crazy granny witch than as the all-systems-go version she becomes later. Gill Robertson’s direction keeps everybody on the same page and the transitions are impressively smooth.
Mullins and Smith are perfectly cast — both childlike enough to win kids’ approval and grown up enough to be believably tough, sort of like your favorite babysitter. Steve Kettley is good as the kids’ dad, too; his sneaking a dinner roll to Hansel behind his wife’s back says an Albee play’s worth about their relationship. And Joel Sanderson gives one of the most compelling perfs as the ubiquitous cellist, whether he’s flirting with Whitefield or scoring the creepy video. He says nothing with his mouth, but his eyes (and his bow) speak volumes.