The Houston Press doesn't usually cover children's theater, but when multiple Houston Theater Award-nominee Afsaneh Aayani creates a work for those “two-through-100 years old,” it definitely piques our interest.
Based on the antique Persian fairy tale Mah Pishooni, this early version of Cinderella is a personal favorite of Aayani's. While a child in Iran, her first introduction to theater was seeing a production of Mah. It transformed her. Later, she acted in another production, and she was hooked. Theater would now be her home. This is what I wanted to do, she said during a brief introductory speech before her show.
If you've been to Houston stages during the last years, you've been mesmerized by her exquisite taste and discriminating eye for set and costume design. Remember those neon-edged church arches in Book of Magdalene, the dystopian graffiti-begrimed future in Dog Act, the sterile white clamminess of The Effect, the jumbled interior mind of 4:48 Psychosis, the ever-present clocks in The Christmas Shoes, the vagina-inspired gates to the Acropolis in Lysistrata, the Stonehenge-meets-Flash Gordon costumes of pagan King Lear? These are classic examples of Aayani's fertile imagination and keen mind in distilling the essence of the play into the visual.
She is, of course, a master puppeteer, and she shines here in Princess. The fairy tale, under Geoffrey Douglas' adaptation and presented by The City of Houston and Houston Arts Alliance, works its innocent magic in about 45 minutes. That is just right for the little ones, and a wondrous respite for us a touch older. There was a tiny youngster in the front row who was absolutely mesmerized by the action on the stage. She stood at the footlights and beamed in satisfaction, clapping her hands, dancing along, all while intensely gazing at the actors. She couldn't get enough of it. The avatar of Aayani?
Although the slight play could stand a bit of clarity (or maybe narration) in the early scenes – the shadow puppets' motivations were a bit hazy and it was difficult to understand what was happening – by the end, though, the moral becomes clear, the plot solidifies, and everybody goes home happy as a four-year-old.
There's an evil stepmother in red fright wig and veil (Cynthia Garcia), an ugly stepsister whose evil ways will force a snake to sprout from her forehead (the marvelously voiced Sloane Teagle), the purple Ghoul with separate revolving head who lives in a well (Alli Villiers), the frog River Spirit, a.k.a. the Fairy Godmother, (Clarity Welch), the friendly cow who weeps pearls; and the selfless noble hero Banoo (Chaney Moore) who undergoes a series of perilous adventures in order to save the day, save herself, and, most importantly, save others.
The puppetry is clever; the puppets, designed by Sasha Blaschka, are a delight to look at; and there's enough snark in the script to satisfy the crankiest of adults. Stefan Azizi's wispy set design is a series of hanging sheers that resemble the ragged entrance to a most magical circus. Alexander Schumann's lighting is fairy tale bright, and Gage Baker's sound design is fragrantly atmospheric from wind, rushing river, to a frog's ribbiting. Best of all, perhaps, is Hessam Dianpour's original score that leaps from Iranian flute – two played at once, amazing – to Bollywood to Hollywood in the easiest of transitions. The constant underscoring is a great equalizer, giving us all a taste of the fantastic.
This sweet tale, made sweeter by Aayani's imagination, swiftly transports us to the wonder and innocence of childhood, where evil lurks but goodness prevails. Stay strong and true to yourself, be kind to others, and the charming prince may just turn out to be you.
The Moonlit Princess continues through September 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. For more information, call 713-344-1291 or visit recroomarts.org. Tickets are General Admission and prices are based on Pay-What-You-Can levels.
Suggested price is $40, as that will cover operating expenses.