Fairy tales often exist for hundreds of years before they’re put into print.
The most authoritative version of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example, is probably that of Joseph Jacobs, who rewrote the story in his “English Fairy Tales” of 1890.
It’s Jacobs’s version – plus the ingenuity of the theater’s own – that inspired the production opening soon at Puppet Co. Playhouse. But productions of “Jack” have been a staple of the company for some time and a “favorite of audiences,” said Allan Stevens, co-founder and CEO.
“Many of the titles in our repertory come from European fairy tales, but do not be deceived,” Stevens pointed out. “These stories were known in oral tradition for centuries before they appeared in print, and there are versions of some of them that span the globe. They are stories that speak to the humanity of the characters. They sometimes offer admonitions, but always offer hope, and that is the way we have used them.”
Although Lee Gerstenhaber started her professional career as an actor/dancer, you might say puppetry seems fated. For one thing, she attended the University of Maryland College Park, where Muppets creator Jim Henson studied (but dropped out) and took a residency with Basil Twist, a contemporary designer and puppeteer. She became part of Pointless Theatre, a puppet-and-spectacle-based theater collective in Washington, D.C.
But performing for the first time with Puppet Co. last spring in “The Three Little Pigs” and “Red Riding Hood” opened new doors.
“Most of Pointless’s themes are adult-driven,” she said. “Puppet Co. introduced me to a new style of physical puppetry and audience base – kids.”
Not that it’s challenge-free. The production uses rod puppets which can be hassle when the puppeteer is also voicing the characters.
“The greatest ones so far would probably be split between the line memorization and the props Jack utilizes. There’s a tremendous amount of strain on my wrists, pinky and thumbs; however, through the rehearsal process, all these get straightened. And Jack, he does talk a lot,” Gerstenhaber laughed.
Generally, said Stevens, their productions follow the traditional storylines. but they’ve diverged a little here, with one noticeable difference.
“When Jack arrives at the Castle in the Clouds, he finds not the ogress of the fairy but a lovely young woman being held captive by the Giant,” said Stevens. “She is challenged. She cannot speak; she communicates through mime and playing of her harp. And she is heroic. She helps Jack in her own rescue and assists in the defeat of the Giant.”
Gerstenhaber said she loves that the theater has “spun the classic beanstalk tale a bit.”
Many of the children who visit the Playhouse face emotional, physical and learning challenges, Stevens explained. “Developing a puppet character who faces these kinds of challenges is truly a challenge in itself. Ill-conceived, such a character could easily be seen in an unfavorable light. We found a solution in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’”
By the way, the Giant, a rather huge puppet, is disposed of offstage.
It’s said puppetry is the one form of theater in which casting is really blind. Gerstenhaber, a 30-year-old woman, is playing Jack, a young boy.
Ironically, she said, “I don’t have to alter my voice much to simulate the sound of a 10-year-old boy. I naturally have a very textured low tone.”
She did listen to Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s Simba in the movie “The Lion King” to help capture “haughty boyishness.”
Christopher Piper plays the Giant and everyone else in the production but Jack.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” plays at Puppet Co. March 28-May 5, 7300 McArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. www.puppetco.org. An ASL interpretation performance is on April 7 at 1 p.m. Recommended ages for the 45-minute show are 5-9.