Hansel and Gretel—I mean Peter and Tina—enter the woods and end up at a house made entirely of waffles and white sauce, where they are led by their evil stepmother to pick rhubarb. And when they need to find their way home, they follow Peter’s trail of knaczot (sunflower seeds).
This is The Mennonite Fairytale, Alan Fehr’s newest theatre creation. The play’s five-member cast performed nine shows in just over a week at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival at the end of July and four shows over the August long weekend at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, Man.
The production began when the museum asked Fehr and his team to put on a play for its Pioneer Days Festival. “I thought it would be easy enough to just find a script that is Mennonite pioneer-based, but there were just no scripts available that we could find,” says Fehr. So he decided to write one himself.
Fehr, who wrote and directed the play, put on his first fringe show 11 years ago. He now runs Real Live Entertainment, the production company with which he puts on plays when he’s not working his day job and which produced The Mennonite Fairytale. A theatre creator by night, he works by day with Summer Bounce Entertainment, an interactive entertainment company in Steinbach.
But this new script was not without its challenges, especially when it got accepted into the Kids Fringe program at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Fehr quickly realized a show for a broad Winnipeg audience and a show for the largely Mennonite audience in Steinbach “is a really different kettle of fish altogether.”
“So then I had to write a show that would then explain the cultural cues of our local Manitoba Mennonite experience, but a lot of those cultural cues are tied to their faith, and their faith is tied to persecution and death, and this is supposed to be a show that is approachable by daycares,” he says.
The ambitious end product needed to boil down Mennonite history to a few minutes and make it accessible to kids. It also addressed church and baptism, a potentially risky thing to do in a public space of a diverse city. He needed to present it in a friendly, approachable and culturally appropriate way, without seeming like a play meant to proselytize young children, something he was actively trying to avoid.
It’s no wonder it was his most challenging production to date. “It’s weird to think that this was the edgiest, but of all the shows I’ve ever put on, this one certainly had the most landmines in it to dance around,” he says. “It’s so interesting to say, ‘What is a Mennonite?’ because it’s such an in-depth question, because it means so many different things to so many different people.”
Fehr is proud of how his actors were able to rise to the challenge and tackle the complexity, saying, “I feel like we did a really great job of coordinating and choreographing our steps to make sure it went off really well, and it really paid off.”
“I found it exciting to be able to bring this kind of culture to a public audience,” says Akecia Peters, who played the roles of Narrator, Rempelstiltskin and Tante Tina. “It was nice to be able to talk to the audience after and see some of the comments they were putting on the fringe website. We got just positive feedback. . . . It really was a great experience.” Peters is entering her fifth year at the University of Winnipeg, double-majoring in theatre and psychology.
The play parodies numerous classic fairy tales by giving them a Mennonite makeover. They speed through centuries of Mennonite history in the first 10 minutes, enough to make the jokes understood.
Then the cast takes the audience through new versions of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Bean Stalk, to name a few. Rumpelstiltskin becomes Rempelstiltskin and Aladdin’s genie emerges from the tub of bacon drippings that every oma inevitably has in her fridge.
“It’s one story that just kind of weaves its way through these different parodies, always with a thick layer of schmaunfat (cream gravy) over top of it,” Fehr says.
Seeing the full theatres day after day and hearing appreciative feedback from audience members made the hard work worth it for Fehr and his team: “It’s been so well-received. It’s really gratifying.”