REVIEW: A Dark and Innovative ‘Snow White’ Premieres at the Arden Theatre
Just two actors perform this classic fairytale in a fresh and challenging way.
GIVEAWAY: Want to win 4 tickets to see the play? We’re running a giveaway on Philly Family’s Instagram!
A new production of Snow White is making its world premiere at the Arden Theatre, and while it’s based on one of the most familiar classics of the fairy tale canon, it is like nothing you have seen before. The play is currently in previews, and formally opens on April 15, running through June 3.
This version of Snow White is accomplished on a minimalist set, with the only furniture being a table, a stool, and a trunk of clothes. To match the sparse surroundings, we open on just Snow White (played by Nastassja Whitman), singing sadly to herself. Over the course of the play, she will only be joined by one other actor, and much of the action will be suggested rather than concretely represented.
Yes, part of what makes this production so remarkable is that the story of Snow White (and her seven dwarf friends) is told with just two actors.
The play almost instantly breaks the fourth wall, as a dwarf named “4” (played by Doug Hara) rushes in and argues with Snow White about whether they can start the story without the others. They poll the audience, all of whom eagerly want the play to start, and decide to take on this storytelling challenge.
With just simple changes in body language, vocal intonation, and accessories like a rag skirt, the actors are able to convey different characters in a way that can be understood by the young audience. As if this straightforward character-switching weren’t notable enough, the actors at times would take turns playing the same character — for example, Snow White would play the Queen, but then 4 would take that over so Snow White could play herself and explain her feelings.
Often, this switch would occur because the two would argue among themselves as to how something “really happened,” and want to each have a turn to present it to the audience. This was an incredible feat, as the actors were simultaneously able to convey the friendly relationship between Snow White and 4 through the ongoing banter, but still convincingly play all the characters in a way that didn’t take viewers out of the story.
Perhaps the most impressive moment was when Hara played all seven of the dwarves on stage by using seven distinct voices, and changing his posture and the angle of his hat. With just those subtleties, seven distinct personalities were clearly expressed.
This kind of untraditional storytelling is a challenge for everyone involved, from the writer to the actors to the audience. It pushes kids to see past gender, age, race, height — basically every characteristic — to understand the essential story and characters. This requires a little imagination from everyone, but when led by a group of artists (both on and off the stage) who are clearly masters at what they do, that is not asking too much of the young theatergoers.
Speaking of young theatergoers, we should probably warn you that this is a much darker version of Snow White than you may be expecting.
“We are so used to the Disney versions of our favorite stories, that it’s exciting to be given the opportunity to go back and re-read them in their original form; to see how dark some of them are,” writer and director Greg Banks said of the production.
The play definitely does not shy away from that darkness. By the time the Queen is frying her 11-year-old stepdaughter’s organs in butter and eating them, it will be very clear that this is not Disney. For that reason, it is probably best suited for kids age 6 and older for its many darker elements.
The darkness is balanced with plenty of levity, from a motif of knock-knock jokes running through the show to little song-and-dance interludes. Perhaps the cleverest humor comes in how the play subverts the audience’s expectations. For example, after they show the Prince kissing Snow White and the two living happily ever after, Snow White and 4 burst out laughing, “at least that’s how the Prince tells it!”
Speaking of names, the unusually named 4 explains that they are all just named numbers, even if you may have heard differently. Virtually everyone coming to this play is familiar with the story of Snow White, so the play uses that shared mythology to its benefit and is able to take some big artistic chances that clearly pay off.
Snow White lasts a little over an hour, and you should definitely plan to stay after for a question-and-answer session with the actors and a meet-and-greet with the actors and the sound designer, who is practically a character in the play himself.
Also, be sure to hold onto your program, because it has some fun kids’ activities that tie into the play!
Snow White runs through June 3 at the Arden Theatre, located at 40 N. Second St. in Philadelphia (in previews through April 14). Tickets range from $20-$39, depending on age.
Lead Photograph courtesy of the Arden Theatre Company.