What happens when, say, Rumpelstiltskin and the candy-coated Hansel and Gretl become linked in the same story? You get a Grimms fairy-tale mash-up. Composer Stephen Sondheim took characters from several sources and came up, famously, with “Into the Woods.” Decades before that, the creators of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” animated a popular segment by doing the same thing – they called it “Fractured Fairy Tales.”
Now comes the playwright James Stover, whose new “Grimms’ Juniper Tree” blends, then twists, a number of the Grimms’ tales into a plot that begins once upon a time and ends up happily ever … oh, I’m not sure about that part. It’s a nicely constructed story that unfolds in about 65 minutes in its world premiere by Center City’s Renegade Theatre Company. “Grimms’ Juniper Tree” has the horrible aspects and tensions of a good Grimms story, along with the fun stuff, too.
Stover’s smart decision to center his plot on a lesser-known tale, “The Juniper Tree,” refreshes the mash-up concept – playing around with an unfamiliar fairy tale makes the story more curious than it would be for an iconic tale we can all recite backwards. (Although I admit that the musical “Wicked” enchants people who think they know what to expect from its source, “The Wizard of Oz,” and get something completely different.)
In its uneven world-premiere staging for The Renegade Company by director M. Craig Getting, “Grimms’ Juniper Tree” seems uncertain of what it wants to be. When it’s a story from the source, the production is static; the characters (played by Dana Kreitz and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen) move with a reserved cadence and speak in pronounced tones. But when characters come along from other tales, they speak in a more modern English delivered by Rebecca Vail and Shamus Hunter McCarty (as Hansel and Gretl or, here, Hans and Greta) in a punchy style. Likewise for the many portrayals of Matthew Mastronardi – among them, a Rumpelstiltskin just this side of creepy. This peppy tone, almost cartoonish, is what the entire piece calls for.
“Grimms’ Juniper Tree” has several nice touches: a lovely accompaniment by cellist Evan McGonagill, and some excellent moves by Daniel Kontz’ and Robin Stamey’s stick puppets, who deliver the nastiest part taken from the Grimms’ original “Juniper Tree” with zest and in silhouette. A similar zest – if it ran throughout – would convince us that it’s a well-knitted story of its own, all for fun but as scary as the originals in those surprisingly dark woods. As it is, the production encourages the stories to separate themselves, even though the recipe calls for them to be mixed together.
“Grimm’s Juniper Tree,” produced by The Renegade Company, runs through Feb. 28 at the playing space in the rear of First Presbyterian Church, on 21st Street between Walnut and Locust Streets. www.therenegadecompany.org.