‘Grimm’s Juniper Tree’ shows the darker side of fairy tales

'Grimm’s Juniper Tree' opens at First Presbyterian Church this week.  Credit: Daniel Kontz ‘Grimm’s Juniper Tree’ opens at First Presbyterian Church this week.
Credit: Daniel Kontz

If “The Juniper Tree” is not one of the Grimm brothers’ better-known stories, it’s likely because the nastier parts – unlike, say, the snipped-off toes of Cinderella’s stepsister or the queen’s red-hot iron shows in “Snow White” — are central to the story, not so easily excised for a children’s cartoon. And that’s exactly what attracted James Stover.

“It was a story that I didn’t know and had never heard of,” says the playwright, “and it’s never been Disneyfied. A lot of the Grimm’s stories are gory and aggressive, but this one in particular is very much that.”

Many of the story’s elements are familiar from other, better-known Grimm’s tales: a family living in a cottage in the woods, a wicked stepmother, a magical tree. But this particular story turns less than whimsical with a decapitation, a daughter framed by her mother, a boy turned into stew and a vengeful bird with a beautiful singing voice.

Stover adapted the story for the Renegade Company, which will premiere the play beginning tomorrow at First Presbyterian Church. With a stated mission of “exploring the familiar in unfamiliar ways by distilling iconic works,” the company seemed a perfect fit for Stover’s approach. “The Renegade Company is really about taking stories that are well known and finding new avenues into telling them,” Stover says. “Fairy tales come up a lot when you’re a kid, the idea being that you’re supposed to learn lessons or morals from them. But looking at the original texts and seeing how different the Grimm’s stories are from the stories that we know, I wanted to take fairy tales and find my own way of telling them.”

Renegade’s production mixes actors with shadow puppets, and a hand puppet for the scavenging bird. In addition to the central story, Stover folds in a number of other fairy tale characters, including modern versions of Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Thumb and Cinderella. Stover says that despite the fantastical elements of these stories, fairy tales continue to resonate with modern audiences because of their universal themes.

“I think the best stories are the kind of stories that anyone can watch and put themselves into,” he says. “With fairy tales, you see the struggle to be good or make positive choices when so many bad things are thrown in front of you. And that’s something that I think anyone can relate to.”

‘Grimm’s Juniper Tree’
Jan. 29-Feb. 8
First Presbyterian Church
201 S. 21st St.
$15-$20, 570-236-5436

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