"Hansel and Gretel," the German morality play in which a powerful, evil grownup is tricked by a good, clever, powerless girl, is a sweet treat, and not just because everyone gets candy in the end.
The story was a natural with kids when the Brothers Grimm wrote it in the early 19th century. The Children's Theatre of Arlington version is straightforward enough to scare and cheer the smallest child, yet rich enough to keep the attention of his parents.
Hansel and Gretel, you will recall, live with their ineffectual father and nasty stepmother in a little cottage near the woods. As the play opens, the two children are discussing their plight (Gretel: "I don't think our stepmother likes us;" Hansel: "Yes, it was really her idea to have father leave us in the woods that time").
The siblings invite a group of village children -- the vain one, the cry baby, the clumsy one, the lazy one, the twins who moan, and so on -- to play in their cottage, and the stage is set for the drama that follows.
In their exuberance, a plate is broken, the furniture is overturned and the place is messed up. Then their stepmother comes home, their friends go home, H. and G. go to bed without their supper (again), and the stepmother cons the children's father into dumping them once more in the forest.
A magic white cat that H. and G. had befriended comes to the rescue, rallying the village children and leading them into the forest -- but into the hands of Witch Wicked, a cackling, menacing, unbearably ugly creature with a sweet tooth for small, chubby boys. She turns all the village children into gingerbread people, and the trap is set for Hansel and Gretel.
The witch's Gingerbread House (great applause for set designer Robin Lyttle) is as tempting as a birthday cake. Hansel and Gretel, verging on starvation, stumble onto it and start eating without remorse.
The witch catches them, pops Hansel into a cage to fatten him up and tries to place Gretel under her spell -- an attempt doomed to failure because Gretel's goodness protects her (as opposed to the other little rascals).
Thrust into this desperate situation, sweet Gretel conceives a clever plan to do away with the witch, thereby freeing Hansel and all the village children.
And not a moment too soon. The audience full of kids is threatening vengeance by this time on the old witch -- masterfully played by Marie Sirotniak with a laugh that chills and a sweetness that revolts.
Sirotniak's performance is typical of the quality the Children's Theatre of Arlington (CTA) brings to its plays and shows the group's unwillingness to swallow the double standard of drama, the one that says professional theater is slick and polished while community theater is enthusiastic, that child actors in movies are well-trained professionals while child actors in the community are cute.
Hansel and Gretel and all their friends are cute, of course, and for some of them the cuteness has to go a long way. But CTA, which hires professional production help with Arlington County funds, makes great demands on these kids and has pulled many of them way past the isn't-that-sweet stage.
Children like Alice Hogan, who plays a crybaby named Katherine, and Anna Flye as the vain Frederica provide the kind of professional smoothness they mean when they call these roles supporting actresses. And Beth Kluegel as Gretel has a voice pretty enough for any soprano part, though perhaps not as powerful as it could be.
But it is Sean Roberts as Hansel who really takes this out of the backyard-skit league. He's funny in a natural, unforced way, macho in a way 10-year-old boys tend to be (alas), and just the right mixture of terrified and courageous, at the same time. He's a Hansel worth saving, in a play worth watching.
"Hansel and Gretel," by Children's Theatre of Arlington, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 14 and 15 at 3 p.m. at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater, 125 S. Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. Admission is $1.50. Call 558-2165 for more information.