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Fledgling theater company Active Cultures had to reach across the Atlantic Ocean to find the source material for its debut production; it only had to look as far as the Chesapeake Bay, however, to make the story its own.
“We want to create performances about the preoccupations, quirks, and the everyday lives of the people we see around us,” says Active Cultures co-founder Mary Resing. The 45-year-old Mt. Rainier resident, who describes herself as a “dabbler” in playwriting, adapted the script for Hansel and Gretel Eat Crabs from a 19th-century opera by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck. In Germany and Austria, Humperdinck’s work is a beloved Christmastime tradition on the order of The Nutcracker or British pantomime, but Resing has opted to remove it from its holiday context with a February staging. Lost in translation is much of the music: Composer Andy Welchel scrounged a handful of the opera’s original melodies for his score, but the rest of the songs were specifically written for the piece with locally tinged blues and pop arrangements. All of the songs are performed live by a rock ’n’ roll band that accompanies the actors onstage.
The most notable alteration, however, is the script. In Resing’s updated version, Hansel and Gretel are a pair of teenage beauty pageant contestants, both female, who wander into a seedy strip-joint run by a witch in Calvert County.
Active Cultures co-founder Jessica Burgess—who first met her collaborator as an intern in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Literary Office, which Resing managed until 2005—believes the changes keep the story relevant for a modern-day audience. “These girls are lured into a strip club, as opposed to a gingerbread house,” Burgess, 28, says. “[The witch] devours children in a different way.”
“Hansel and Gretel is fundamentally about the relationship between children and food: They want to eat, but they don’t want to be eaten,” Resing says. As such, food—and, in particular, Charm City’s celebrated crustacean—plays a significant role. “There are references in this production that are highly specific for anyone who’s familiar with Baltimore and suburban Maryland: blue crabs, East Baltimore Street, the Chesapeake Bay, Old Bay seasoning. All these things attest to a distinct American culture.”
For the time being, Active Cultures plans to stick within the friendly confines of Maryland—both in subject matter and venue. Burgess jokes that the company’s next production may pay tribute to Maryland’s landscape of government agencies with a loose adaptation of Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters staged as a “drag/cabaret show.” The remainder of the productions held during Active Cultures’ inaugural season will be staged at Joe’s Movement Emporium in the Hyattsville Gateway Arts District.
“I hope we can expand the focus outside of Maryland—but, at the same time, Maryland is also where I grew up, raised three kids, and spent time on the PTA,” Resing says. “It’s a huge state; even in my little corner of northern Prince George’s County, there are a ton of little towns and communities…[w]e could look for local culture in each of them and never run out of material.”
Hansel and Gretel Eat Crabs runs to Sunday, Feb. 11, at Joe’s Movement Emporium’s Raw Theatre, 3306 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Ranier. $12. (800) 494-8497.