In its latest production, Imagination Stage combines Mark Twain, Bollywood dancing, magical jewels, and the toppling of a dictatorship – and somehow makes that all work. It’s a nuanced tale that might be best for big kids and more mature little kids. But even younger theatergoers will appreciate the shoulder-shimmying singing and dancing.
Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper is reimagined in 13th-century India, with orphaned, spoiled princess Razia and the big-hearted seamstress’s daughter Rani. Rani’s world is one of food lines and hard work. Her younger sister is sick but can’t get good medical care. But Rani is happy with the day’s worth of honest activity and draws the audience into one of the play’s first joyful dance numbers, simulating cutting wheat and picking mangoes.
Rani’s mother, Hema, is making an intricately embroidered chogha, or cloak, for the wazir, who will be celebrating his ascension to the throne after the recent death of the sultan. The event, called the Tajdari, is to take place in three days, so Hema is busy.
Inside the palace, Razia’s world is one of opulence, servants, and plentiful food. But to the grieving princess it is also a prison. The wazir is a dangerous tyrant who refuses to let Razia out even to her royal mango garden. His ridiculous tantrums nevertheless are pretty funny.
When Hema and Rani deliver the chogha to the wazir, Razia and Rani realize they look remarkably alike. Razia glimpses her chance for freedom. She and Rani switch clothes, then Rani stays in the palace and Razia goes home with Hema.
The play is at its best in these humorous scenes of mistaken identity. Razia can’t believe that the mouthful of food she gets – eaten while sitting cross-legged on the floor – is her entire dinner. At the palace, Rani is in danger of getting her nanny executed because she offers to share grapes with her.
The role-switching helps Razia realize how sheltered she’s been, and blind to a system that exploits laborers. She joins with Rani in foiling the wazir’s evil plot – which, it turns out, has something to do with a cursed jewel. I was a little confused by this plot twist but it probably wouldn’t bother any five-year-old Minecraft player.
Ultimately, the play explores quite contemporary themes of inequality and good governance, but what viewers might remember best is the beauty and the beat of Indian culture.
- The Princess and the Pauper runs through March 18. Weekday performances are at 10:30 a.m. Weekend performances are 1:30 and 4 p.m. Tickets start at $10. The play runs an hour and a half, including a 10-minute intermission.
- The theater recommends the play best for ages 5+ – I’d qualify with “mature” 5-year-olds.
- There is parking in the next-door garage. Parking is free on weekends.
- Vending machines onsite sell snacks and drinks.
Photos by Margot Schulman.