The new production of Snow White at the Arden Theatre is as much about the story as it is about its number of cast members. But let's start with those cast members — all two of them.
Nastassja Whitman and Doug Hara portray the 10 roles in playwright and director Greg Banks' adaptation, sometimes playing different sides of the same character. The only other person on stage — or, rather, above it, perched in a tree — is musician Daniel Perelstein, accompanying the actors on harp and trombone.
The Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis commissioned Banks to create the piece. The Arden, however, is first to produce it. Banks recalled the assignment. He said, "They said: Could I do it for two actors? I was a bit shocked, and said, 'No, I can't.' " He tried anyway.
"When I started to write it, I tried with three [characters]," said Banks, "This meant Snow White was a bit sidelined, a victim of the story. I realized if I only have two of them, they can both play everything. She gets to play the stepmother and a dwarf, as well."
During last Saturday's 4 p.m. performance, the kids in the audience got to giggling when the long-bearded Hara camped it up as the Stepmother. When he downplayed the character's evil side, Whitman stepped in to up the wickedness.
"In a funny way, it's quite nice for the audience. For the audience to see Snow White play the Stepmother, to realize she can be more than one kind of thing, that people can be more than one thing," said Banks.
Does such interchangeability make it less frightening when the Huntsman (played by Hara) comes at Snow White from behind, wielding what appears to be a very real knife?
Does the arrangement make it less yucky when the Stepmother (at that point, played by Whitman) hews faithful to the Brothers Grimm, eating what she believes to be her stepdaughter's "lungs and liver?" Maybe. Maybe not.
But when Hara transforms into all seven dwarves within a mere 60 seconds, an onlooker can't help but be impressed. As the actor readjusts his cap, expression, voice, and comportment to play a new character, he creates a complete debate — echoing modern arguments about immigration — on whether to allow a lost, terrified, hungry, and hurting 11-year-old stranger into their home.
Banks works to infuse a variety of topics into the piece without fine points. "I like to think I insert little bits and bobs of thinking without being dry and dull," he said, "That stuff is in the world — and, it's a fairy tale, it's a show, it's for fun."
Banks' "reasonably gentle" examinations include loneliness: "Snow White's mother is lonely. She's rattling around in a big castle. The king is away, and she wants a baby, and that baby is Snow White," he said.
The play touches on survival and grown-up responsibilities. "The Huntsman has to do what the Queen tells him because if he doesn't, he'll lose his job, and his family will starve," he said.
There are moments of class conflict. "There's a line in the play where the Stepmother is going to go off to kill Snow White. Basically, she yells to her servant, 'Bring my horse and carriage.' Because she's disguised as a poor old peasant woman, her servant responds, 'You'll have to walk ma'am.' And she says, 'Walk? Nobody walks!' He says, 'The poor do.' "
The most apparent theme: the greatness of the outdoors. Said Banks, "I was really keen that after spending all her childhood in a castle, which is gray and lonely, [Snow White] lives in the forest, and the dwarves introduce her to nature."
"A young audience might not necessarily go, 'Oh, nature's great.' But they are reminded to look at trees, to listen to the birds, and to notice the sky, and how it changes," he said.
After each production, Whitman, Hara, and Perelstein return to the stage as themselves to answer questions from the audience. During Saturday's later afternoon performance, one smaller audience member raised a hand and declared, "I liked it."