Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Good Person of Szechwan
In Andersen's original tale, the Chinese emperor is besotted by the voice of the nightingale and has it brought to the palace to sooth his troubled spirit. After a beautiful mechanical bird possessing a wealth of talents is presented to him, the king loses interest in the nightingale. The heartbroken nightingale flies away. When the mechanical bird breaks down, the emperor becomes deathly ill and realizes the folly of favoring the toy's illusions of wonder over the authentic beauty and grace of the nightingale. The nightingale is brought back to him and its sweet song restores the emperor's health.
Chua has kept the historic Chinese setting, marking it with references to the infringement of Italian merchants on their kingdom, placing it in the era of Marco Polo, maintains the duality between the nightingale, as an instrument of truth, and a mechanical bird, as an instrument of deceit, and keeps the emperor on hand, but the story revolves around two of his children, Prince Jai and his younger half-sister, Princess Hexiao. The emperor bemoans how little either of them know about the vast kingdom he rules, and sets them in a competition: after 100 days to learn, whichever of them reveals greater knowledge of the land will be named Palace Royale.
Prince Jai scoffs at his competitor, not believing that a girl would ever be given such an important title. The Princess' mother comes to her aid and tells her about a magic talking nightingale that soars over all the land and reports on everything she sees. They journey off to find the nightingale in Tiger Valley, inhabited by a comical pair of pandas, a braggadocios tiger, and a bevy of other charming animals. Sinister Prime Minister Wu reveals an evil bent, siding with the prince. His reason is never stated, but the implication is that power must remain a male dominion. Wu devises a mechanical bird and tricks the Princess into believing it will be a better aide in winning the contest than her nightingale, who does nothing but report on sickness, poverty, floods, famines and other woes across the land. Without saying more, I can assure that the hour-long play concludes with justice doled out all around and a hearty endorsement made for empowering girlsprincesses or otherwise.
Chua conceives of the Prince and Princess as contemporary children who use the jargon of today's sitcom family kids, the animals are vaudevillian in the mode of Disney animal sidekicks, and the Emperor, Minister Wu, and Empress speak with a formal court-like manner. It sounds like a merry mix-up, but it all works. The Princess and her nemesis the Prince are relatable to the young audience, the animals generate hearty laughter, and the adults provide a context in which this is serious business that affects time-honored tradition and values. The script has wit, precision and drama. Chua incorporates a number of facets of traditional Chinese art forms, such as Chinese calligraphy, cipai (a Chinese poetic verse form), lion dance, Peking opera, and shadow puppetry, and has included several songs that resonate of the story's time and place. All told, this simple play conveys respect for the cultural forbears of the tale as well as for the contemporary relevance of its messages.
Randy Reyes has done a terrific job of smoothly integrating the various elements, mounting a flawless production. The transitions are seamless, the pacing swift enough to keep the young audience engaged without losing track of its narrative, and audience participation is inserted to good effect. The interplay between the adult and youth members of the cast is consistently on the level of practiced professionals.
Among the youthful cast members, Natalie Tran, as Princess Hexiao, is still young but certainly experienced, having appeared on stages including the Guthrie, Children's Theater Company, and Artistry. She is wonderful here, giving full force to the Princess' assertiveness and self-confidence, as well as the flaws which come close to being her undoing. Tran commands the stage whenever she is on it. Max Perdu portrays the Prince as the witless, undeserving pretender to the Emperor's largesse, demonstrating a desire for power without understanding the knowledge and courage it takes to hold it.
Eric Sharp conveys the cunning deceit of the Minister and is the witty front half of the tiger, setting up jokes for Kelly Huang as the tiger's tail. Kathryn Fumie, shows the Nightingale as both a sweetly earnest creature and an outspoken defender of the downtrodden. Hope Nordquist portrays the Empress with calming wisdom, while Nikko Soukup-Raymo's spin on the Emperor shows the sound judgment that underlies his authority. The ensemble, all youth cast members, perform during the songs (though their volume might be somewhat increased), several movement interludes as impoverished citizens of the kingdom, and as enthused animal friends to the nightingale.
Mina Kinukawa has designed a simple but effective set that distinguishes easily between the royal court, the Princess and the Prince's chambers, and the sub-tropical Tiger Valley settings. Imaginative costume designer Rhiannon Fiskradatz provides jaunty costumes for the tiger, nightingale, panda, and animals in the ensemble, along with brightly realized costumes for the human characters, in keeping with the sense of a mythologized Chinese past. Karin Olson's lighting design follows the movement of the narrative across Steppingstone's wide proscenium. The fight choreography by Eliza Rasheed presents a good facsimile of traditional martial arts in a manner tame enough for the youngest audience members.
Having seen three of Steppingstone Theater's 2017-2018 offerings, I am impressed by the rising quality of their work and their use of some of the best Twin Cities talent to affirm their commitment to quality youth theater that reflects our community's diversity. This is never more important than when reaching out to young audiences who are on the cusp of discovering the joys and wonders of theater. With Kory LaQuess Pullman (Education Manager at Penumbra, founder and Artistic Director of Underdog Theater, and star of their recent production of Luna Gale and a stirring Hamlet in Park Square's production last fall) tapped to direct their Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry this past winter, and Theater Mu Artistic Director Randy Reyes (a leading advocate for Asian-American stage artists and stories) to direct The Princess' Nightingale, Steppingstone Artistic and Executive Director Mark Hauck has not only talked the talk, but walked the walk in creating an inclusive and respectful arena that entertains and educates hand in hand, while attaining high standards of quality, an asset to our young and old alike.
The Princess' Nightingale, a co-production with Theater Mu, through May 19, 2018, at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Public Performance tickets, pay as you can, $5.00 - $50.00 for all performances. School day matinees available for group sales. For tickets and information about Theater Mu, go to www.muperformingarts.org. For information on Stepping stone Theater for Youth Development, go to www.steppingstonetheatre.org or call 651-225-9265.
Writer: Damon Chua, adopted from The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen; Director: Randy Reyes; Assistant Director: Daisuke Kawachi; Stage Manager: Raul Ramos; Assistant Stage Manager: Kivan Kirk; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Dan Smeiska; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Choreography: Allen Maliscsi; Cultural Consultant: Eliza Rasheed; Technical Director: Leazah Behrens; Production Manager: Rachel Ostroot.
Cast: Kathryn Fumie (Nightingale), Kelly Huang (Tiger Tail), Hope Nordquist (The Empress/Panda 2), Max Perdu (Prince Jai), Nikko Soukup-Raymo (The Emperor/Panda 1), Eric Sharp (Minister Wu/Tiger Head), Natalie Tran (Princess Hexiao, the 10th Princess).