'Clowns telling stories'

Ragtag Theatre's 'Hansel and Gretel' comes to Berkshire Museum

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PITTSFIELD — The witch turns on the oven with Amazon's Alexa and an Uber pulls up. That's the world director Sam LaFrage has created in Ragtag Theatre's adaption of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel."

"I didn't grow up with this story, so it was a hard one to write" LaFrage said. "'Hansel and Gretel' doesn't live in my heart, you know? But I certainly know what it feels like to be lost, and I thought it was interesting to write a play about people's paths. Like, what does it mean to go on a big journey of life?"

Presented by Barrington Stage Company's Youth Theatre and showing today through Aug. 10 at the Berkshire Museum, "Hansel and Gretel" is played by 11 teen actors from the Berkshires and features drag elements and contemporary references. The production's book is by LaFrage , and music and lyrics are by Lewis Flinn (Broadway's "Lysistrata Jones") and LaFrage. This is the first time that Barrington Stage Company has commissioned a new musical for its Youth Theatre production. For LaFrage, the creator of Ragtag Theatre, which aims to provide LGBTQ-centered shows for the family, "Hansel and Gretel" serves to "empower people who feel different," building on his previous works: "Rapunzel" and "Cinderella."

"This is my least gay show," LaFrage said with a laugh. "But it's flavored with that drag-like energy to it. We've got a Nancy Grace character, we've got funny allusions to pop culture. It's those things you get to see at like a live pantomime."

"Hansel and Gretel" finds inspiration in commedia dell'arte, a genre geared toward audience participation and comedic improvisation.

"[The cast] plays with each other and they play with the audience," LaFrage said. "These are clowns telling stories, which is one of the oldest traditions in the history of theater. It's fools telling stories."

But by infusing the show with comedy and a drag aesthetic, "Hansel and Gretel" underscores its messages of inclusivity and empowerment with creativity and flair. Characters are given a chance to change and rise from uncertainty.

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"One of the more difficult parts of this style of theater was just like breaking the barriers down and allowing yourself to be loud, crazy and weird," actor Sam Stein said.

"And a big part in our rehearsal process was a theme that we have to earn this moment," actor Elliot Loverin added. "We have the more serious heartfelt moments that kind of break away from the comedy. We have to make sure that we build to these emotional, true moments."

Drag helps to deliver salvation and catharsis for the audience, according to LaFrage. "It's going into yourself," he said. "That's freedom. The allowance you give yourself to be fat, ugly, loud, big. Like all the things that we tell ourselves in public to not be, we get to be that here. And that's what drag gives you — the freedom to be yourself."

From international trends such as Marie Kondo and "Grey's Anatomy" to more local references like PTA mothers and even Pittsfield's CVS store, the show covers the gamut of pop culture, aiming to connect with both a young and old audience, who are encouraged to shout out suggestions to the cast during the course of the play.

"What's been awesome working with a youth company is that they know what kids laugh at and they know what teens laugh at," LaFrage said.

For now, the cast continues to flesh out their roles as new pages come in every day, all the while maintaining the same spirit that makes the show "wacky, zany and very fun," as Stein puts it.

"We see that weirdness," LaFrage said of the show's ostentatious comedy. "There's just an allowance that it gives to take that into our own lives, which is really why I do these shows. It's to empower those people who feel different. Especially the little people who feel different, who don't know they are allowed to be fully themselves. They are allowed to be weird. Weird is not weird — it's you."


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