One might think a theatricalized version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves would demand a cast of, at minimum, eight people.
Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre has said, “nope!,” and endeavoured to create a complete Snow White with only two performers: YPT artistic director Herbie Barnes and JD Leslie at the performance the Intermission team attended, and Sort Of star Amanda Cordner and Ken Hall at other performances. It’s not publicized which team performs on which days.
What ensues on the Ada Slaight Stage is a silly, often improvised, high-energy afternoon of storytelling, with fragments of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale hurled between Snow White and her dwarf at a breakneck pace. Small costume pieces — a hood, a blanket, a hat — suggest different characters, and Barnes in particular as the rolodex of dwarves tries on several shades of vocal mask, ably disguising himself as each of the myriad characters he plays. Leslie’s role is more consistent — for 90% of the show, she’s Snow White, charming and childlike and appropriately whimsical.
Director Aurora Browne has found admirable balance between Barnes and Leslie — a delicate middle ground between freneticism and groundedness. Though at the show we attended, the performances didn’t always feel impeccably polished, the duo always look like they’re having fun — and that translates into the audience’s experience. Through choreographed movement and an impish give-and-take between the two figures onstage, Browne has created an enjoyable wander through the surprises within playwright Greg Banks’ text. The show is a little long — at 85 minutes, there were certainly some squirms on the afternoon I, our digital manager Janice, her husband and their two kiddos attended — but at its best, those minutes melt away as Barnes and Leslie banter with each other (and with us!).
A YPT outing would be incomplete without, er, YP. That’s why we brought along Celeste, 9 and Felix, 5, and asked what they thought (because, at the end of the day, this show is for audience members like them, not me). Overall, they enjoyed Snow White — it was a completely different version of the story than they’d previously known, and they found some of the physical business between Barnes and Leslie unspeakably fun — though they too found the show a little lengthy in its final third. It bears mentioning that this Snow White is darker than the Disney treatment; we meet the Huntsman and witness a few “violent” deaths. But the Grimm element is never overplayed, and as such succeeds in adding some texture to the story kids might have known before.
Visually, the show is lovely, making it almost feel like a pop-up book. Brandon Kleiman’s set and Laura Gardner’s costumes competently create a storybook feeling onstage, and Gardner’s costumes in particular make Snow White and her dwarves feel like grown-up-sized kids rather than grownups. Siobhan Sleath’s lights, too, are just the right amount of spooky when they need to be, evoking a suspenseful atmosphere without sacrificing the comfort of the show’s littler audience members.
The study guide YPT has created for the show is fantastic, with some fascinating exercises for school groups who might attend, including a game to help kids suspend their disbelief in the case of minimal props and a how-to for teachers to demonstrate the idea of “tableau.” The curious spirit of YPT shines brightly in that study guide, reinforcing the importance of drama in the classroom while also allowing students to have fun and explore at their own pace.
This Snow White is an intimate and relatively simple affair, but even in its simplicity it pieces together a low-stakes, highly amusing fairy tale for kids who might still be learning what theatre is and what their place in it could be. The improv element here is pretty fun, and the cast often demonstrates heartwarming chemistry. Who ever said it took more than two people to tell the story of Snow White?
Snow White runs at YPT through January 7. Tickets are available here.