The six zany actors who make up the beloved Patchwork Players have their audience plotting against a witch, pecking at crumbs and squawking like birds in their rendition of the Brothers Grimm story “Hansel and Gretel.”
“It is different from other forms of theater,” said Patchwork Players Director Jessica Podewell. “It has a vibrancy that other theaters don’t have.”
Known for bringing kids up on stage, the professional theater troupe will engage children in the most interactive play of its six-play repertoire at the Rivertown Theater for the Performing Arts from July 8 to 19.
In the classic fairy tale, a brother and sister are abandoned in the forest by their parents and take refuge in a gingerbread house inhabited by a witch. Eventually, the pair outwit the witch and escape.
“There are these big, white panels, and the kids get to draw the gingerbread house or the forest and lots of spooky, scary creatures that live in the forest,” Podewell said.
As the siblings are led further into the forest, Hansel leaves a trail of bread crumbs to lead them home, but hungry birds foil his plan.
“All the kids can get up and be birds and eat the bread crumbs,” Podewell said. “It’s pretty great having so many kids running around flapping wings and chirping — it is a top Patchwork moment.”
Patchwork Players has brought fairy tales and classic stories to life in a fun and playful theatrical setting since 1984. The troupe was founded by Buzz Podewell, Jessica’s father, who adapted familiar stories and directed the players for almost 30 years.
It’s the troupe’s second season in Rivertown. Previously, the group performed at a chapel on the Tulane University campus.
Since Buzz Podewell’s death in March 2013, his daughter has carried on her father’s legacy by taking on the role as director. Now her own 3-year-old daughter sits in the audience, mesmerized by the kookiness on stage.
“Patchwork is very honest,” said Gary Rucker, a troupe member for 15 years. “It doesn’t talk down to the kids. ... We get to play and do a little improv with them,” Rucker said.
Meanwhile, adults in the audience get to relive their favorite fairy tales and childhood stories, with a Patchwork edge.
“There are tons of jokes for kids but an equal number of jokes for adults —like stupid political jokes and local jokes. It really is for everyone,” Podewell said.
Starting when she was 4, Podewell spent her summers in awe of the Patchwork Players. After years of trying to convince her father to let her become an official member of the troupe, he finally conceded when she was about 17.
“It was really important to him that kids get involved with the arts early on and feel that the theater really is a place for everyone. It’s not an elite establishment,” Podewell said.
“The nice thing about Patchwork is that they are so involved in it. Their imaginations really are sparked by the storytelling,” Podewell said.
It’s exactly what Buzz Podewell was aiming for when he wrote the plays.
“When Buzz wrote them, he had a theme in mind for every show ... each one has a different mood. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is probably the most innocent and playful for the audience. It really is a sweet story,” Rucker said.
What keeps the six Patchwork Players coming back year after year is the energetic involvement of the children.
“Gretel is about to crawl into the witch’s oven, and the kids are literally jumping out of their seats and screaming,” Podewell said. “Other theater is great, but you just don’t get that kind of audience interaction that you get with kids’ theater.”