REVIEW: Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates

Young people deserve entertainment that is as truthful as the world they live in; Hans Brinker… delivers on that promise.

Lauren Hirte as Gretel.

Lauren Hirte as Gretel.

Luckily for audiences at the Arden, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, the world-premier production playing at the Old City theater, does something that many children’s theater shows fail to do: It speaks to children like they are humans — not watered-down beings unworthy of truthful entertainment. In fact, one might argue that good children’s theater, meaningful children’s theater, should lose the “children’s” identifier altogether.

Hans Brinker kept the audience, full of both young and the young-at-heart, entertained for nearly two hours at the Monday afternoon performance.

Much of that has to do with Whit MacLaughlin‘s rapid-fire direction that kept the play moving at an enjoyable pace. The script, penned by Hollywood’s Laura Eason (House of Cards and off-Broadway’s Sex With Strangers), is a sharp and focused adaptation of the 1865 novel by Mary Mapes Dodge. The play focuses around a downtrodden brother and sister whose lives seem to almost magically transform thanks to the goodness of strangers. The idealism in the plot could almost be too sugary sweet if it wasn’t for the fact that Hans Brinker deals with some extremely dark subject matter, including poverty, illness, and bullying, which, again, are actual real things in a real world. It seemed the adults were more taken back by the depressing bits in the play than the kids in the audience.

The cast of "Hans Brinker…"

The cast of “Hans Brinker…”

The cast was also excellent, and brought a good amount of spirit and passion to the Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage, which was transformed into a ice rink (not a real one, mind you) with huge operational windmills that spun throughout the production. As the brother and sister protagonists,Brian Ratcliffe and Lauren Hirte were both engaging and energetic; the two performers were essentially on the stage throughout the entirety of the show, which speaks to their own personal stamina. Ms. Hirte, trained in circus acrobatics, even performs a simple, yet stunning, silks dream sequence in the middle of the first act, and the children just ate it up.

Also of note were Arden regular Rachel Camp as the mother and Ed Swidey making his Arden debut as the father. On Monday afternoon, Emily Fernandez stepped into the role of Heidi van Gleck, and brought a real emotional beauty to the transformative character.  Steven Wright and Matteo Scammell were also very good, playing a number of characters throughout the show, and musician Jay Ansill, who also wrote the music for this production, played a number of instruments (harp, fiddle, violin) with great warmth and style.

I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about how young many of the audience members were, especially after it quickly became apparent that Hans Brinker wasn’t going to be a fairy tale decked out in princesses and magical creatures. However, they were beyond attentive, which again speaks to just how smart young people are when it comes to their entertainment. They’re living in a very real world, and, I’m sure, they’re getting bombarded with stories of crime, violence, and disease every time they turn on the television. Children’s theater shouldn’t be scared to speak to the realness of the world that we’re living in, and the Arden deserves kudos for making this production as truthful as it is.

“Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” runs through January 31. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre’s website.