From Cinderella to Buttercup to Kate Middleton, everybody loves a princess. But in “The Princess & The Pauper—A Bollywood Tale,” the very idea of a princess is getting a makeover—physically, emotionally and philosophically.
“We’re talking about kids who figure out that, ‘Wait! I have a power,” said Anjna Swaminathan, who plays Princess Razia in the show at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. “It’s not like any of the traditional fairytales where the man kisses the woman, and everything is fine. It goes back to this idea of intersectionality, and finding where you have power where others might not and using that as a step forward.”
In this play, an adaptation of the Mark Twain story set in “long ago India,” the female protagonists overcome the lack of privilege that being female represents by relying on the power in their own hearts. “For me, it’s fantastic,” said Swaminathan, a Brooklyn-based musician, artist and actor who grew up in a “very, very artistic and musical family” in Burtonsville. “Looking back on my childhood, even in the ’90s, stories were about, ‘Oh, Cinderella—oh, the Prince! He saved her.’
“Very rarely, she saved herself.”
Very rarely, of course, were traditional fairy tales written by women. So, when D.C.-based playwright Anu Yadav, with whom Swaminathan has collaborated in the past, was asked to create an original play by Imagination Stage Artistic Director Janet Stanford, who directs, she leapt at the chance.
“It is the first commissioned play I’ve written for an ensemble,” said Yadav, whose works include “Capers” and “Meena’s Dream,” both of which she has performed as a solo artist. “That was really cool. I really appreciate the opportunity to explore, and to work my writing muscles in a different way.
“It was just so fun,” she exclaimed. “I mean, it was a lot of hard work, and I learned a lot, but I just had this smile plastered on my face. I was beaming.”
Also beaming: the kids in the audience, who settle in for the show before a stage reminiscent of “Aladdin” or “Arabian Nights” and end up immersed in an interactive musical tale that is under-the-radar-educational and unabashedly pro-girl. And in the truest tradition of musical theater for kids, the over-the-top greedy bad guy gets his comeuppance.
“Children at their heart know what’s right and what’s wrong and have a very clear sense of justice,” observed Yadav, who grew up in Iowa and has family in India. “I feel like, if we can tap into that and what we know is true about joy and justice, there’s just a whole world of possibilities to acknowledge, to affirm, to explore.”
Not that they haven’t been explored before. The playwright pointed out that “The Princess & The Pauper—A Bollywood Tale” is an adaptation of Twain’s novel “The Prince and the Pauper,” first published in 1881. The original story, said Yadav, “is definitely more satirical than my take on it.”
Her take adds elements more satisfying than satire: primarily the ancient Sufi concept of Divine Love, or “ishq,” as well as more modern ideas about feminism and unity in the face of tyranny. Oh, and that most central tenet of children’s literature and pop culture, trading places with someone from a completely different walk of life.
The plot—wherein Princess Razia, longing for the freedom she envisions beyond the palace, swaps lives with poor peasant Rani (played by Alexandra Palting)—transplants the kid-friendly narratives of movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Freaky Friday” to an imaginary kingdom in Southern India during the 13th century.
“It’s about access,” said Swaminathan. “You have these two girls; yes, they’re both women and they feel so restricted in their lives, but one has so much, and the other has so little.”
In true fairytale style, though, both girls manage to whistle a happy tune—albeit a tune that comes from long ago and far away. Embellished with elements of classical Indian music and dance (the source of the “Bollywood” label in its title), the play offers an opportunity for its audience to dip into another culture, or perhaps see their own family’s traditions enshrined onstage. It also lets kids examine concepts of fairness and justice, and taps into the well of kindness that children possess as a birthright. When things aren’t right, “The Princess & The Pauper—A Bollywood Tale” conveys to its audience, it’s up to kids who are brave and have love in their hearts to make a change.
“I think that children have a very natural instinct toward morality,” said Swaminathan. “They can see, ‘That girl is really mean, but I think she’s in pain.’ They’re able to grasp some things that adults sometimes don’t get, and to witness that has been very, very gratifying.”
Gratifying to Yadav is “That idea of love as a revolutionary force at the heart of social, political and economic change.” Writing “The Princess & The Pauper—A Bollywood Tale” allowed her to imagine a world where divine love could drive social dictates.
“Our society is deeply polarized; it has been for a long time,” the playwright said. “We have to confront things in a way that we haven’t done before, and it can be very painful.” Underpinning her work are positive ideas on how to heal, ideas collected from all cultures and time periods.
“I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. about divine love (agape) being ‘the love of God operating in the human heart,’” she said. “What does it mean to recognize how we are divided? And what do we need to move through so that we are not?”
These questions are far more complicated than, “What shall I wear to the ball tonight?” But perhaps the next generation of princesses will be able to answer them.
“The Princess & The Pauper – A Bollywood Tale” runs through March 18 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda. Shows start at 10:30 a.m. weekdays, with public performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 4 p.m. and select Saturday performances at 11 a.m. Tickets start at $10. The show is best for ages 5 and older. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.