Charming ‘Hans’ will skate into your heart

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“Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” is an old story but one with timeless many messages – always be kind, don’t judge a person without knowing their circumstances, work hard, cherish time with loved ones, hold on to hope, the list could go on. Arden Theatre’s world premiere of a new play by Laura Eason is based on the 1865 book by Mary Mapes Dodge. The story, which takes place in icy Holland, focuses on siblings Hans and Gretel Brinker. When their father, Raff, was injured ten years ago, the family was plunged into desperate circumstances. The injury left Raff alive but with no memory, barely functioning and prone to violent episodes. While his mother takes full time care of his father, Hans works at woodcarving and sells most of the family’s possessions at the market. The family is looked down upon by their peers do to their poor situation and low social status. Despite this, Hans, and especially Gretel, remain optimistic and kind-hearted.

“Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates” runs at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City, Philadelphia, through Jan. 31. Tickets are $20-$36. For a list of show times, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org. There are post show question and answer sessions after each performance and audiences have the opportunity to meet the cast members after each show. “Hans Brinker” is entertaining for both older children, say six and up, as well as adults.

Things begin to change for the Brinkers when Hans and Gretel are befriended by Heidi van Gleck. Heidi, impressed by Gretel’s ability on wooden skates carved by Hans, gives Gretel an old pair of metal skates. Heidi convinces Gretel, and eventually Hans, to compete in a skating contest. The prize is a beautiful pair of silver skates. But more than that, it gives Hans and Gretel a chance to prove themselves to the snotty kids who constantly ridicule them.
The Brinkers circumstances are further improved when Hans convinces renowned surgeon Dr. Boekman to examine his father. With emergency surgery, Dr. Boekman is able to restore Raff’s memory and return him to his family.
The show culminates in an exciting ice skating race, right on stage, which left the audience cheering for the heroes and booing the villains.
“Hans Brinker” is beautifully directed by Whit MacLaughlin. The action takes place a simple yet well designed set by David Gordon. Aided by Thom Weaver’s lighting, the stage is a pretty ice rink and the working windmills are impressive. After the opening night performance, cast members explained they were able to glide across the stage due to its glossy finish and costume designer Rosemarie McKelvey’s well designed felt skates. McKelvey’s other costumes were well done, too. The shabbiness of the Brinker’s frocks helped draw a distinction between them and the well-dressed upper class residents. The action is backed by lovely music performed by Jay Ansill right on stage.
Arden’s cast is strong, anchored by Brian Ratcliffe as Hans and Lauren Hirte as Gretel. Ratcliffe and Hirte really capture the “I love you/now I annoy” relationship between most siblings. Hans, as the provider of the family, is a protective occasionally indulgent big brother. Ratcliffe expresses that well. Hirte captures the optimism and hopefulness of youth. And she has a stellar aerial sequence. Ciji Prosser is terrific as Heidi. Prosser is sympathetic and compassionate yet strong willed. And toward the end, Prosser and Ratcliffe have cute scenes together.
Matteo Scammell is funny and entertaining as Peter van Holp. Steven Wright gives an air of hurry and importance as Doctor Boekman while his second character, Carl Voost, is mocking and self-important. Rachel Camp nicely distinguishes between downtrodden yet strong Dame Brinker and stuck up, rude Katrinka. It was easy to forget the same actress played two characters. Ed Swidey expertly navigates sick Raff Brinker and whole, strong, well, Raff.

:Lauren Hirte as Gretel and Brian Ratcliffe as Hans. Photo by Mark Garvin

:Lauren Hirte as Gretel and Brian Ratcliffe as Hans.
Photo by Mark Garvin

During the run of “Hans Brinker,” Arden has partnered with Project HOME to collect coat donations. Patrons can bring new coats to any performance and drop it in the specially marked bin. Helping others ties in nicely with the theme of the story. For more information on Project HOME, visit www.projecthome.org.

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