A sense of familiarity permeates THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, Matt Tallman’s adaptation of Anthony Hope’s novel of intrigue, adventure, and mistaken identity among the aristocracy in the fictional kingdom of Ruritania. This is not merely because the source material is more than 120 years old, and has been adapted for stage and screen no fewer than a dozen times; it even serves as the source material for the classic 1990s romantic comedy Dave. Rather, Tallman’s retelling—receiving its world premiere at Media’s Hedgerow Theatre, in a production he also directed—follows a popular playbook among contemporary playwrights looking for a quick hit. Like Patrick Barlow’s popular (and profitable) take on The 39 Steps or Ken Ludwig’s ubiquitous Baskerville (which is about to receive its third Philadelphia-area production in as many years this fall at Walnut Street Theatre), THE PRISONER OF ZENDA offers a shoestring adaptation, performed by a small cast doubling and tripling roles, and offers a sense of one and all being in on some kind of parlor trick. Everything old is new again, and presented in much the same manner.
But if THE PRISONER OF ZENDA doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it provides a pleasant diversion. Tallman and his game troupe of actors—Allison Bloechl, Josh Portera, Anna Marie Sell, and Mark Swift—are hammier than a grocery store meat cooler the week before Easter. And the melodrama’s more obvious plot twists can be seen from space. Still and all, the audience at the performance I attended couldn’t have cared less; they were happy to laugh, gasp, and cheer at every revelation—not to mention the impressive swordfighting (Jacqueline Holloway is credited as the fight choreographer), which even extended into the auditorium and up the aisles. I’ll even admit I swooned a bit at the play’s sentimental conclusion. If you’re not going to do something new, at least do something well. That could very well be this production’s motto, and there are worse things.
[Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA] March 30-April 30, 2017; hedgrerowtheatre.org.