Theater Mu’s The Princess’ Nightingale Is a Dazzling Flight of Fancy

Delightful. That’s the word that captures the experience of seeing The Princess’s Nightingale, directed by Randy Reyes of Theater Mu at SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul. Incorporating singing, dancing, and fighting (plus writing), the show will grab your attention from the moment the curtain rises and hold it throughout.

Though a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale,” The Princess’ Nightingale is given its own voice by playwright Damon Chua. In fact, despite the two stories containing many of the same elements, they really are two wholly different tales. While Andersen’s story focuses on the dangers of attempting to cage something born to revel in freedom, Chua’s version speaks more to the need for a balance of knowledge and compassion in a world beset by troubles.

Princess Hexiao and Nightingale

Princess Hexiao (Natalie Tran) consults with Nightingale (Kathryn Fumie) on the state of the kingdom. Photograph by Dan Norman. Used with permission.

The 10th Princess, Hexiao (engagingly played by Natalie Tran), is competing with Prince Jia (Max Perdu, ably showcasing starter-level villiany) for a post at court at the right hand of their father, the Emperor (Nikko Soukup-Raymo). The Emperor is disturbed by the Italian explorers penetrating his kingdom, but more disturbed that the interlopers seem to know his land better than his court does. He challenges the prince and the princess to learn all they can about the land in a hundred days, with the promise of the post going to the more knowledgeable.

Prince Jia is the odds-on favorite, being directly in line to the throne and assisted by the scheming Minister Wu (Eric Sharp), who has designs to turn the foreigners’ technological prowess to his own advantage. Plus, as Jia smugly informs Hexiao, he’s a boy. The princess is determined, however. Upon hearing from her mother, the Empress (Hope Nordquist), of a Nightingale (Kathrynn Fumie) that flies the length and breadth of the kingdom, gathering all the news and events that can be found, she sets out to seek its help. The Nightingale agrees to help her in return for a promise not merely to listen to what is happening the kingdom but to take action as well.

SteppingStone Theatre aims to develop acting talent in younger actors, and the younger members of this cast all get their chance to shine. Even the members of the chorus—Eva Allinder, Mariam Ben Said, Rui Rui Bleifuss, Sabyl Chi, Anja Dengler, August Ho-Chen, Summer Tran, Shina Xiong, and Tristan Xiong—move from background to foreground as they switch from playing forest animals to courtiers to downtrodden peasants wailing about their lot. Each actor, if not each character, also gets a song of a variety, ranging from upbeat to genuinely moving. (The peasant chorus’s song about how they suffer while the court does nothing could have been ripped from today’s headlines.)

The staging by scenic designer Mina Kinukawa and costuming by Rhiannon Fiskradatz make a fine attempt to upstage the actors. Each costume is distinctive and, when full transformations are impractical, convincingly evocative. When the scene is set in Tiger Valley, the background animals are portrayed by the chorus creeping along behind a lattice with different animal-themed headgear: on one a snake wraps itself sedately around the actor’s conical hat, while another sports elephant ears and is accompanied by trunk-like arm waving. Yet another has feathers, another mouse ears, and so on.

Tiger Head and Tiger Tail

Tiger Head (Eric Sharp) and Tiger Tail (Kelly Huang) discuss whether to eat Nightingale. Photograph by Dan Norman. Used with permission.

The foreground animals are just as striking. Tiger, the ruler of Tiger Valley, is presented by two actors (Eric Sharp as the head and Kelly Huang as the tail) after the manner of a New Year’s dragon, while the titular Nightingale herself is a feathery aggregation of wild colors and face paint and Fumie’s fluttering sincerity.

The sets are understated but engaging. A lattice and hanging bamboo represent the forest of Tiger Valley, while a floor-to-ceiling screen represents the palace—and is itself transformed into the 10th Princess’s own rooms by a casual drape of pink silk. Between scenes, a screen is wheeled to the forefront of the stage, and while an actor mimes with an oversized brush, Chinese characters appear on the screen, subsequently translated by the actor; at the finish, panels are removed from the palace set, revealing the characters written throughout the show. The presentations are not necessarily educational—I don’t think I could remember one of the characters now—but do provide intriguing flavoring. The screen is also used to illustrate stories told by various characters during the show. While the actor speaks, paper puppets are pressed against it, depicting what the actor describes.

This being a show aimed at the younger crowd, of whom there were three school buses’ worth at the performance I attended, there is an audience participation section, led by Tiger, revolving around whether he should eat Nightingale or not. (The kids were divided, but most rallied to the defense of Nightingale.) But despite the intended audience, adults will find it just as entertaining, and I highly recommend making a family outing of it. It will be a magical hour that all of you will remember.

The Princess’ Nightingale continues May 17, 18, 19 at 7:00 p.m. at SteppingStone Theatre, 55 Victoria Street North in St. Paul. Shows are selling out, so be sure to get your tickets soon.

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