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Imagination Stage gives children two art forms for the price of one

The title character of “The Little Mermaid,” played here by dancer Giselle MacDonald, gets some assistance as she swims through the ocean. (Margot Schulman)

When directors ask more than one actor to share a role, they're often out to create a high-minded stunt. Think Synetic Theater's "Othello," with three mimes conveying the complexities of evil as Iago. Or "I'm Not There," the Todd Haynes film with six mumbling genius Bob Dylans. But at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, double casting is not a gimmick, but rather a new way to tell children a familiar story and expose them to theater and dance in one sitting.

"The Little Mermaid," onstage through Aug. 14, is the theater's second collaboration with the Washington Ballet. As in 2012's magical adaptation of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," each lead role is played by an actor and a dancer.

“They figured it out the first time around, and this time, we are all a little more comfortable,” said Justine Icy Moral, who was Lucy in the C.S. Lewis classic and now has the lead role of Pearl, as the mermaid is called in this version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale.

The “they” Moral refers to are director Kathryn Chase Bryer and choreographers Septime Webre and David Palmer. In between “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Little Mermaid,” Webre and Palmer also collaborated with InSeries, a local chamber opera company, on two projects that had the same dancer-double concept.

Giselle MacDonald, a member of the Washington Ballet’s Studio Company, danced in the InSeries’ “Carmen” in February. In “Mermaid,” she is Moral’s dancing doppelganger.

“In ‘Carmen,’ it was more like someone was singing and I danced around them,” MacDonald said. “This is more together. They’ve developed this idea [where we’re] like two sides of the same person, meshing. It’s not like dancing and then singing. The doubling is used to further explain our characters.”

To clue in audiences, the women wear similar costumes. MacDonald also dyed her blond hair a dark brown to match Moral’s. “It was really exciting,” she said, noting that they first tried wigs but couldn’t keep them secure. “I’ve never dyed my hair before, but I was all for it.”

At several points in the show, the actors and dancers switch roles, as a giant blue sheet is unfurled over the stage. The trick is particularly effective when Pearl rescues Prince Edvard (Tiziano D’Affuso) from a shipwreck. Moral initially snatches him from the churning fabric sea, but it’s MacDonald who dances a pas de deux with her partner, Christopher Collins.

“I was worried at first that it would be a confusing concept,” MacDonald said. “But kids’ brains are very creative. I think people underestimate what a child can understand.”

Flashpoint space sold

Downtown D.C. will soon be losing a popular black-box performance space, as well as an art gallery and dance studio. The nonprofit group CulturalDC has sold the two-floor arts space known as Flashpoint, at 916 G St. NW, which houses the Mead Theatre Lab.

“We are quite sad to be losing our home,” said David Olson, managing director of Pointless Theatre Company, one of three troupes in residence at Flashpoint, along with the Ambassador Theatre and Solas Nua, the Irish cultural group.

Tanya Hilton, interim executive director of CulturalDC, says she will close the deal this month but has an agreement with the developer to lease the space back for up to 18 months. (Her targeted closing date is next July.) Hilton said the organization initially put only the second floor of Flashpoint on the market last fall, citing a decline in arts groups renting out administrative space on the second floor. Hilton then got an offer she said she couldn’t refuse from JCR Cos. The theaters were only told June 21, when the sale was finalized.

Flashpoint opened in 2003 as was one of several venues that owed its existence to requirements that developments in Penn Quarter include arts spaces. (Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre Company and the former Goethe-Institut space on Seventh Street were other examples.)

Hilton said she met last week with a group of arts and community leaders to discuss finding a new space. She declined to say who is on the committee but said that members would consider all four quadrants of the city. Neighborhoods she mentioned include Petworth, Eckington and Ivy City, all of which are less accessible than Flashpoint, which is within walking distance of all six Metro lines.

Accessibility is a major concern for Pointless. The company has produced seven shows at Flashpoint since 2012, and only moved to the Logan Fringe Arts Space in Trinidad after selling out the 60-seat Mead black box. Now the group is coming back, with two shows booked in the Mead this season.

“Our audiences found it challenging getting to the venue in Trinidad,” Olson said. “The convenience of producing in the center of the city is what made Flashpoint such a gem.”