Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hans Brinker and The Silver Skates: Lessons about life for young people

Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates shows how young people can cope with making hard choices and standing up to their peers and their parents. It is also a very egalitarian play in which boys and girls are treated as equals in their abilities to persevere and to succeed.
Lauren Hirte as Gretel, Ciji Prosser as Heidi, Steven A. Wright as
Carl, Matteo Scammell as Peter, and Brian Ratcliffe as Hans
Photo by Mark Garvin. 
I remember Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates from my childhood. The book held a special place in my library, not because I liked the story, but because the book itself had a special cover that differentiated it from most of the other books I owned. While I could tell you the story of almost all the other books I read from that time, I really didn’t remember more about Hans Brinker than that it had to do with a race along the canals in Holland.

The production of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates at the Arden Children’s Theatre brings the story to life in a enchanting way that makes me think I had never fully appreciated the original. The ice-blue scenery with windmill blades rotating in the background and a floor that serves as an ice rink (Scenic Designer David P Gordon) makes us feel the cold of the Dutch Canals in winter. The cast members, in period costumes (Rosemarie E. McKelvey), glide across the specially-treated stage on “skates” (shoes with felt and rubber soles) so effortlessly that we believe we are watching them skate on ice.  
Lauren Hirte as Gretel. 
Photo by Mark Garvin. 

Set in Holland, the story is about Hans Brinker (Brian Ratcliffe) and his sister Gretel (Lauren Hirte) who have grown up in poverty because their father Raff (Ed Swidey) fell off a scaffolding while trying to repair the dykes during a storm ten years earlier. Since that time he has been “a living man with the mind of a dead man,” who needs to be taken care of by his wife Dame Brinker (Rachel Camp). Now, there is a to be race on the canals with the prize of a pair of silver skates. Hans and Gretel would like to participate, but they only have wooden skates, carved by Hans, to wear on the ice. They don’t stand a chance against the rich kids who regard them as “rag pickers.”

However, Heidi van Gleck (Ciji Prosser) and her friend Peter von Holp (Matteo Scammell) are moved by their story and try to help them by giving them old skates in return for Hans’ carved necklaces. After some persuasion by Hans, grumpy Doctor Boekman (Steven A Wright) agrees to operate on their father as much for his ego as a matter of charity.

Laura Eason, who also writes for the Netflix show House of Cards, has created a gentle drama that is held together by the tension of wondering how things will turn out for our two young heroes. Will their father be cured? Will they find the family’s missing money? Who gave their father a precious watch? Will they be able to participate in the race? Who will win?

Most of all, she has written a story in which the girls and the boys are equally cruel and brave. When Raff Brinker becomes deranged, Gretel distracts him with food. When Hans despairs, Gretel pushes him on. When the rich kids taunt Peter and Heidi, they stand by their new friends. The most conventional characters are the faithful Dame Brinker, and the spoiled Katerina Voss (both played by Camp), but Dame Brinker has kept the family together for years by working when she could, and Katarina may be spoiled, but she is also competing in the race.

I watched the production with more than 200 school children in grades two to five and their enthusiasm was hard to resist. Despite the length of the show—almost two hours with intermission—they paid attention and cheered Hans and Gretel on in their races at the end. 

Whether they absorbed the lessons about life and hope that are a part of children’s theater is harder to tell. The play talks a lot about keeping hope alive when things get tough, and Gretel even says, “Hope is a good in itself,” which is a nice lesson when stories have happy endings. It may be harder to sustain when challenges can’t all be overcome.

The lesson about standing up for what you believe had an interesting component when it touched upon standing up to one’s parent and those in authority as well as mean kids who are taunting you. It would be interesting to sit on discussions around these topics and see what the students have to say. 

In any case, it’s an enjoyable show that plays well whether you’re a kids or a grown-up, and concludes with a Dutch holiday tradition of putting out wooden shoes filled with decorations for Sinterklaas  instead of hanging stockings on the mantel as we do in this country.

Hans Brinker and The Silver Skates, By Laura Eason, adapted from the novel Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland by Mary Mapes Dodge (1865). Whit MacLaughlin directed. Presented by Arden Children’s Theatre, through January 31, 2016 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. (215) 922-1122 or 

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