Play based on Grimm tale asks children to consider the death of a parent

By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

Just try to imagine children's literature without the hoary literary device of parental death. We'd be without such fairy tale heroines as Snow White and Cinderella, not to mention just about the entire Disney catalogue: How would the tales of Bambi or Simba have unfolded had they not lost mother and father, respectively?

So often the death of a parent is little more than a convenient conceit set out in Act 1 to clear the way for the newly orphaned protagonists to embark upon adventures that Mom or Dad almost certainly would never have allowed. But rarely is the death of a parent the fulcrum around which a piece of children's literature pivots. Because, of course, what writer would truly wish upon pint-size characters the harrowing reality of losing the person most central in life at far too young an age?

But that is just what Washington playwright Allyson Currin has done with her adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's "The Dancing Princesses" being performed through May 30 at Bethesda's Imagination Stage. And she sounds almost cavalier about those tiny psyches.

"Kids are way more receptive to harder issues than we think they are," says the 46-year-old mother of two. "They are more willing and open to learn, especially through art that speaks directly to them about these issues."

Currin's version of the Grimm tale has just two dancing princesses, not the original 12. As the play opens, it is coronation day for King Horace, who is being teased playfully by his wife, Queen Alice, and their two daughters, Lena and Lara. The kingdom is infused with color and joy and, most of all, the dancing of the vivacious -- and audacious -- Queen Alice. But when Alice dies (not in childbirth or of consumption, but flying a biplane), mourning envelops the king, and he banishes dancing from the kingdom. How the king, bereft of his wife, and his daughters, yearning for their mother, come to accept their new life is poignant, frank and ultimately triumphant.

Sadly, Currin, a veteran Washington playwright and actress, knows of what she writes.

She began working on this adaptation four years ago, just after her husband died of a brain tumor. "My daughters and I have been through it, so we know what it is like."

But Currin is also quick to point out that the play is not autobiographical. The heartsick king who takes to his bed after his wife's death is far different from Currin. "I was very high-functioning, taking care of everyone else," she says. As for how the daughters resemble her own: "The characters are equal parts both girls. Writing this play was for them, and not about them."

This is Currin's second play for children; the first was "Unleashed! The Secret Lives of White House Pets," which played at the Kennedy Center in 2008. She says that the subject matter may give the play "an adult aesthetic" but that she worked hard to ensure that the script was filled with joy and humor. "The king's grief moves quickly from wallowing to being played for comic relief. . . . We try not to stay in 'grief land' too long." The king's whimpering insistence that "I can't sleep without my Bear Bear" as he snuggles a stuffed animal is one of many giggle-inducing moments in the production.

The music and costumes of the 1920s instill the play with a life and time many children will be unfamiliar with. But the setting is part of that adult aesthetic Currin was striving for. "The Roaring Twenties into the Great Depression seemed the hinge moment [to make the point that] the loss of dancing is a national loss, not just a personal one." She concedes that the historical reference may be lost on much of her audience but is confident that the impact of the story won't be.

"Good children's literature is good literature, period," she says. "If I'm writing a good story, then I think we'll be okay whatever the audience is."

The Dancing Princesses Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Through May 30. 301-280-1660. $10-$21. Appropriate for age 6 and older.

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