Hansel & Gretel return to The Pence March 8 & 9

COOLIDGE, Ariz. – Cass Foster knows how to present drama. Central Arizona College’s professor of theater loves taking old tales and twisting them into modern-day versions that make for more meaningful storytelling.

On March 8 and 9, Foster will again unveil Hansel & Gretel: Ay Caramba at the Don P. Pence Center for Visual and Performing Arts on Central’s Signal Peak Campus.

Last year’s Hansel & Gretel: South of the Border is this year’s Ay Caramba with a few refinements in the script and production.

In 2007 Foster undertook the daunting challenge of providing the English- and Spanish-speaking children of Pinal County with a unique adaptation of the familiar Brothers Grimm tale Hansel & Gretel. He used illegal immigration as a canvas, not a political statement, to retell an updated version of the classic story.

“It all started,” Foster said, “when I went looking for a script that was comfortable for a diverse audience. But they were either too cute or they talked down to the children, so I figured I would just go ahead and create one. There are an endless number of adaptations, so why not one more? It occurred to me more than half of the children that will be seeing our show speak Spanish at home. And since theater is more successful when audiences can connect, why not do some of the script in Spanish?”

Where the original story forces the protagonists to kill a witch and face the reality of being abandoned by parents, Foster’s version replaces those two disturbing elements with a journey of hope as Hansel and Gretel show caring for the witch while receiving the same compassion from U.S. Border Patrol.

In the original adaptation, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods by their parents and ultimately forced to kill the evil witch to survive. There is no death in Foster’s version and Hansel and Gretel have not been abandoned but rather are trying to gather food when they unknowingly make a border incursion.

“We now have a Hansel and Gretel our children can relate to – whether they are Mexican, American or Australian,” Foster said. “Their mother is too ill to work and their father left for the United States to send money back. They haven’t heard from him since. Hansel and Gretel leave one day to scrounge up food and inadvertently cross the border. They come across the U.S. Border Patrol – the wolves – and of course, the Witch. The Witch, by the way, was abandoned by her father, explaining why she despises men and lives in isolation.”

While audiences will be fascinated with the mystery and adventure Hansel and Gretel experience and the fantasy-like world of the Witch and her gingerbread house, the violent undertones of the original book have been peeled away. The wolves in this version don’t foam at the mouth looking for a tasty morsel, but instead are empathetic to the children’s situation.

“We do not subject the audience to common adaptations that include being abandoned by parents and the killing of a witch,” Foster explained “I personally find those two aspects of this fairy tale to be the most disturbing – at any age.”

Foster’s production is a presentation of an old story with a modern twist that will have a diverse and multigenerational appeal. His script pumps new life into a rehashed fairy tale, providing the audience with a real-life metaphor.

“It is common to stage plays in different periods and cultures – and for the same reason, helping contemporary audiences relate,” he explained. “So that led to me thinking since our title characters are from a poor home, let’s make it Northern Mexico. If they are to have reasons to be afraid when they wander away from home, let’s make it the desert instead of the woods.”

Adaptions through the ages are nothing new. Foster cited some of the works of Shakespeare that have been transferred into a different time period without losing the message. In 1996, the film Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone had its roots in the 1816 Jane Austen novel Emma. It is how talented producers, directors and writers tell a new tale using a familiar piece of work.

Foster’s take on Hansel & Gretel comes from years of experience and his award-winning teachers.

“What my highly-acclaimed and nationally-recognized mentors have shown me, as well as my experience directing shows for youth for many years now, is how important it is to respect young audiences by not talking down to them or being afraid to tackle issues that they are often forced to contend with - for example, divorce, death, religion and drugs.

A substantial part of Foster’s training comes from nationally- and internationally-recognized educators and playwrights such as Suzan L. Zeder, an endowed chair in Theatre for Youth/Playwriting at the University of Texas, who has been recognized as one of the nation's leading playwrights for family audiences; and Arizona State University Associate Professor of Theater Pam Sterling who teaches directing, playwriting and graduate courses in Theatre for Youth.

“Sterling won the American Alliance for Theatre in Education's Distinguished Play award and is included in the anthology Twenty Best Plays for Children,” Foster stated. “These are people who not only know how to entertain children, but who know how not to take them places that will be disturbing.”

“We don’t hit the kids over the head with these issues or lecture them or take sides – we engage them in a way that not only entertains but permits them to discuss and explore from wherever they are in their emotional and intellectual development. Thus our version of Hansel & Gretel will be entertaining for four-year-olds as well as adults.”

One concern already expressed to Foster is whether non-Spanish speakers will enjoy the play.

“In a word, yes,” Foster emphatically stated. “Some text is in Spanish and some in English. Gretel might say in Spanish, ‘Let’s play a game.’ Hansel might respond in English, ‘I’m too hungry to play a game.’ This way, regardless of which language you speak, you are able to follow the story and possibly increase your understanding of another language.”

Foster’s personal view of illegal workers and immigration in the United States is not factored into the Hansel & Gretel equation.

“I provide a glimpse of both sides of the issue,” he said. “It is up to the parent to determine how much or how little to discuss. I do not use the theatre as a soapbox but as a mirror. I hold it up for the world to see itself and decide what, if anything, they want to do about what they see. My main function at Central Arizona College - where students can study every aspect of theater at a two-year college - is to challenge my students and designers; to engage and entertain our audiences so they come back for more; and provide an experience for everyone concerned that touches their heart in a way that says, ‘We care.’”

Hansel & Gretel: Ay Caramba kicks off Central Arizona College’s spring semester programs and is part of the 2007-08 Entertainment Series.

In addition to the play, the spring schedule of college productions includes a series of musical concerts throughout March and April, while four national shows are scheduled through Curtain Call Productions.

Play performances will take place on Saturday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, March 9, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for the show are just $9 for adults, and free for youth 13 and under. Seniors 55 and better, as well as Central employees, may purchase tickets at the discounted rate of $7.50. All Central Arizona College students will be admitted free with their student identification card.

For $18, two adults and all of their children 13 and under can enjoy the play.

Special matinee performances will be held March 4-7 for third- and fourth-grade elementary school classes who have reserved seats as part of college’s community outreach program. The admittance for the matinees is a donation of one non-perishable item per person. After the matinee, students can enjoy their lunch and the fresh air on Central’s Green.

Tickets for the show are available for purchase online at www.centralaz.edu/publicevents, by phone at 1-800-237-9814 x5223 or 520-494-5223, or at the Pence Center Box Office Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Schools also should call the public events office to reserve seating for the matinee shows.

Central Arizona College is located at 8470 North Overfield Road, between Coolidge and Casa Grande. From Phoenix or Tucson, take I-10 to exit 190, proceed east, turn left on to Overfield Road, which will take you directly into the entrance of Central Arizona College.

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