With a mix of charm, darkness, humor and skillful puppetry, father-and-son duo David and Stephen Syrotiak of the National Marionette Theatre brought the classic fairytale Hansel and Gretel to life at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry on Saturday.
In a somewhat modified version of the story, siblings Hansel and Gretel live with their poor mother and father, on the verge of starvation. One day, when gathering berries in the woods, the two are lured deep into the woods by a child-hungry witch with a gingerbread house. When Hansel is captured by the crone, Gretel rescues her brother by tricking the witch into looking into an oven and shoving her inside, turning her into a giant gingerbread cookie.
The story has a notable lack of a cruel stepmother, who in the original story leaves the siblings out in the woods after she is unable to feed them. This change reflects the evolving nature of fairytales and other oral traditions, puppeteer and artistic director David Syrotiak said.
“There’s too many stepmothers,” David said. “If it’s not gonna hurt the story at all, we (change it.) Stories change as they’re told.”
The entire performance was an intricate operation. The puppet stage, which takes an hour and a half to set up, used sliding props for each scene and a crank-operated scrolling backdrop, which consisted of 50 continuous feet of background scenes hand-painted on muslin.
The marionettes themselves were highly detailed, with 12 different strings on various joints and points of the puppet’s body. After the show’s conclusion, Syrotiak gave a demonstration of how he worked the puppet. David uses his everyday observations of human movement to replicate a body in action, and create a realistic character on the stage.
“Manipulation is no more than observing normal people on the street and translating that movement on the strings,” David said. “It’s something you never stop learning.”
Even the motion of sitting down has a specific set of movements, David said, which a puppeteer must observe and use to create life-like movement. The effect, in the end, dazzled audience members.
“It was enchanting. The way that the marionettes were so realistic was incredible,” said Cynthia Bass, a Scotland, Connecticut resident. “This couldn’t have been better done.”
The National Marionette Theatre, which was founded by David in 1967, has no official performing space, but instead tours the country 180 days out of the year, performing classics such as “Aladdin,” “Alice in Wonderland” and other childhood favorites. It’s hard work, but for David, it is a labor of love.
“I’m compelled to do it,” David said. “I think (puppetry) is still a valid art form, and people need to see it. All it takes is for one kid in the audience to be enthused about puppetry, and my job is done.”
For many, the opportunity to take their families to performances like these is an activity that is off the beaten path.
“How many people have a puppet theater in their town?” said Janet Welch, a Storrs resident who attended with her son and young neighbor. “We really enjoyed it. It’s a unique thing to do with kids, and it fires the imagination.”
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.