Like a masterly crew of medieval mountebanks greeting a new town, Arden Theatre Company’s new production THE LIGHT PRINCESS mixes up a elixir of make-believe which we desperately need in Trump’s America.
Playwright/performer Tony Lawton; composer/musical director Alex Bechtel; and triple threat performers Emily Gardner Xu Hall, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Rob Tucker mount the empty Arcadia Stage and chat directly to the audience, basically saying: “Hey, we are about to do a show, if you need to exit go this way, otherwise here we go!”
Bechtel takes a seat behind his piano and begins to play, Lawton and crew plant gigantic cotton balls on exposed burning bright lightbulbs, and up they go high in the rafters. Lawton grabs a book, opens it, and begins to tell a tale of a kingdom which existed once upon a time.
So long ago the date is quite forgotten there lived a king and queen who had no children. Until one day the queen (Emily Gardner Xu Hall), gave birth to a lovely daughter (the bold and breezy Brett Ashley Robinson)—as lovely a little princess. Lawton builds our trust as faithful narrator MacDonald,by hiding nothing from us, revealing all stage craft and tricks.
Folding up a blanket into the shape of the newborn Light Princess, he becomes the Princess’ sturdy Scottish nurse. Unfortunately, the sturdy and trustworthy nurse cannot shield the Princess from a life-long curse cast by her aunt (acutely, ferociously, deliciously portrayed by the Bechtel), a wicked witch spiteful because the king forgot to invite her to the Princess’ christening.
George MacDonald, author of THE LIGHT PRINCESS (adapted by Lawton) wrote circa 1864: “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” Although this show is suitable for children 6 and above, it’s a must-see for everyone of any age.
It is refreshing to watch a musical free of pyrotechnics, flashy scenery, or monstrously large sets. Instead we have a stripped down production executed purely by talented individuals who know how to weave a delicious tale with merely the instruments on their backs (literally: accordion, viola, guitar) and simple props. A red scarf weaved in a certain way becomes (voila!) a snake.
To many, this is a soul-crushing time in American history. We need shows of this caliber to lift us above our immediate circumstances. This is all the light I want to shed on THE LIGHT PRINCESS, because you simply must see it for yourself, but I will leave with a note: I am concerned that THE LIGHT PRINCESS might be taken too lightly, or not seriously by some viewers (Barrymore judges, for instance). Seeing a show of this sort is like watching Fred Astaire tap dance on the ceiling of his hotel room in the 1951 musical Royal Wedding. THE LIGHT PRINCESS may look as easy as floating on air; but is very difficult to execute.
[Arden Theatre Company] April 5-June 4, 2017; ardentheatre.org.