note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Beverly Creasey
From Shakespeare to Hollywood, everyone loves the idea of royals passing themselves off as common folk. Eddie Murphy's African prince went under cover in "Coming into America" in order to find a bride; King Henry obscured his face under a large cloak in order to talk to his men before battle; Audrey Hepburn's princess took a "Roman Holiday" and "The Student Prince" just wanted to be treated like one of the boys. Mark Twain evidently couldn't resist the notion, and the happy result of his labor is "The prince and The Pauper" in which two boys from different worlds swap places without being found out.
The Wheelock Family Theatre gives energetic life to Thomas Olson's stage adaptation this February. Wheelock specializes in grand, sweeping tales with casts of "thousands" and director James P. Byrne's production is at its best when the stage is crowded with colorful characters. The marketplace in front of the palace teems with merchants, shoppers, beggars, guards and children --- all involved in their own business.
The regal set-up (to initiate the switch) takes a whole to arrange, but once the device is in place, the story crackles with complications. The poor prince, who thought it would be "glorious" to go barefoot and play in the mud, gets knocked about, arrested and kidnapped, while the pauper gets powdered, pampered and lavishly fed. Each learns kindness as he struggles to survive, and each learns the meaning of justice.
A romantic subplot about a brave knight and the lady he loves, loses, and regains, gives the story extra appeal. By helping the true prince get back to court, the gallant knight finds the means to win back his lady fair. Britton White makes a dashing knight, capable of tenderness and caring as well as expert swordsmanship. Jeri Hammond gives a memorable performance as his lady love, informing all with a subtle glance that all is not well at home, way before we're let in on her sad story. Todd Rizley portrays the prince with just a hint of superiority, making his brushes with danger both amusing --- because he expects to be treated as a prince even when playing the pauper --- and harrowing --- because he's in genuine peril. Polly Furth plays the pauper and discharges the "pants role" with just enough swagger and cheek to pull it off.
You can't have a drama about goings on at court without the requisite fussy footmen and haughty ladies-in-waiting to provide comic relief. Delightful cameos are delivered by Monique Nicole McIntyre as the starched mother hen of a second in command, and Dan Dowling as the Lord high fuss-budget. You can imagine their collective shock over the pauper's decidedly un-princely behavior. When the ill-mannered heir doesn't seem to know his "place" they attribute it to madness.
Neil Gustafson gets to do some nifty character switching himself, first playing the aged, ailing King Henry VIII and then portraying the nasty ringleader of a gang of ruffians and ne'er-do-wells who set upon the prince and his friend, the knight. Mansur, too, gets to play both sides of the street as a treacherous innkeeper and an officer of the court. Roland Hayes Robinson gets laughs as the very confused Archbishop of Canterbury confronted at the coronation with not one but two lookalike princes!
Calvin Braxton is the pious priest murdered by the pauper's nefarious father --- Greg Nash gnashing his teeth as the villain of the piece. Jacqui Driscoll is appropriately wary as the future Queen Elizabeth, and Julianne Gale gives a warm performance as the pauper's protective sister. Jane Staab gives a breathtaking performance as a woman pleading for her (and her child's) life when the two are accused of witchcraft. Byrne's actors all distinguish themselves, from urchin to page.
Marian Piro's bright, sumptuous costumes for the royals --- especially Lady Edith's rich brocades and elegant gold head-dress --- stand in marked contrast to the drab grey stone of the castle/bridges and the earthtones of the townspeople's garb. Byrne's cold castle set includes a comfy royal carriage for the descendants of the Tudor rose, which probably wasn't too comfortable for the servants who had to carry it. Twain's message of compassion, especially for those in power, fits seamlessly into English history as well as it does into ours.