An occasional look at family-friendly theater around Washington. (Shows are appropriate for age 4 and older unless noted.)
Finding one’s place in the world and celebrating cultural diversity are two big ideas weaving through four plays on Washington-area stages this spring. For little ones, there are richly visualized tales set in western and southern Asia at Adventure Theatre and Imagination Stage. For teens (and perhaps some tweens), Ford’s Theatre and Arena Stage are taking on contentious American issues from the 20th century that live on in the 21st.
Director Roberta Gasbarre, the guiding light of the Smithonian’s Discovery Theater, is staging her new adaptation of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at Adventure Theatre MTC. The piece is based on a 1940s stage version by James Norris, but Gasbarre, who learned that the Aladdin story has no historical Arabic origins — it may be from China — is taking a different tack.
In her version, Aladdin (Ryan Carlo) is Chinese, and the story unfolds in Central Asia, around the Ottoman Empire. Aladdin is a clever and virtuous street urchin, tricked by a magician (Ahmad Kamal) into getting a magic lamp out of a cave. He meets a lovely princess, Adora (Ariana Kruszewski), and together they must defeat the magician.
“I wanted to honor the Scheherazade legend, and so we have a woman who plays Adora’s handmaiden,” Gasbarre says. “She is a storyteller. And she introduces the children [in the audience] to the idea that stories are always retold in different ways.”
If there’s a message in her retelling, Gasbarre says it is that “the magic is in the connection that people find with each other.” The production will have its share of actual magic, too. “Things light up and fly, and lots of cloth and swirling,” she says.
Hana S. Kim designed the “Aladdin” set and video projections. She started by researching Ottoman-era carpets and paintings, as well as Chinese art from the same time.
“What struck me was the almost overabundance of patterns and color,” Kim says. The set will feature an array of fabric bolts with multicolored patterns and projections sometimes added over that. “What we’re trying to do is have a set that captures that aspect of the culture, like almost an explosion of colors and patterns,” she adds.
Finding the perfect lamp fell to props and puppet designer Andrea “Dre” Moore, and eBay came through. She got ideas for the show’s puppets — needed for crowd scenes — by researching the ancient tradition of puppetry in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, near where the story unfolds. Moore says she also did a lot of thrift-store browsing, “trying to find something of the flavor that lets [Gasbarre] draw the audience into what we’re trying to communicate.” With small children, she says, the job is not to teach geography or history, but to provide a flavor of a different culture.
At Imagination Stage, four actors will play all of the animals in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in a stage adaptation by Greg Banks. They’ll also take turns narrating the story of the boy Mowgli (Justin Weaks), who is raised by wolves and who befriends most of the animals in the jungle, apart from the vengeful tiger, Shere Khan (Ricardo Frederick Evans).
“A lot of children’s theater is about identity. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?” says Artistic Director Janet Stanford. “The story has its appeal because we all grew up with this idea that we might have been able to grow up among the animals.” Add to that, she says, the environmental consciousness that children share now and the “need to respect animals as fellow creatures.”
Kendra Rai designed the “Jungle Book” animal costumes. Her husband is of Indian descent, and she felt a pull toward classical Indian dress, with a dash of Bollywood. The animal characters will appear in human clothing and wear turbans that express their animal features. One or two characters — the snake Kaa (Nora Achrati), for example — will have puppet elements built into their costumes. Mowgli’s pal Baloo (Ryan Mitchell) will be a native-to-India sloth bear, with a white “bib” on his chest.
“I felt like it was really important to get [the costumes] back in India,” Rai says, “and when I knew I was doing humans as animals, I said I really want to make sure we use traditional Indian garments.”
Kipling’s childhood home in 19th-century India inspired “Jungle Book” scenic designer Daniel Ettinger, reminding him of the backyard playhouses on stilts popular in America.
“I happened to come across the picture of Rudyard Kipling’s house,” Ettinger says. “Instant recognition of oh, my gosh, there it is right there. His boyhood home, where he’s imagining all these stories about these characters happening in the jungle, and it’s right there. So I literally took the shapes of the house and the color and textures I had seen in some of the artwork and mashed them together.”
The result is a multilevel set in jungle-green camouflage colors, against which the animals in their jewel-toned costumes will, Ettinger and Rai hope, positively pop.
“Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” April 7-May 21 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. 301-634-2270. adventuretheatre-mtc.org. $19.50.
“The Jungle Book” April 22-May 28 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. imaginationstage.org. $12-$30.
Children 12 and older may delight in the early-20th-century costumes and the old-style music in the revival of the musical “ Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre. But they’ll recognize as very modern the clashes over racism, immigrants and rich-vs.-poor, played out among historic and fictional characters. (The 1998 musical, with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and script by Terrence McNally, is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow.)
Director Peter Flynn has diversified the cast for the Ford’s production, with, for example, a Latina actress (Rayanne Gonzales) playing the radical firebrand Emma Goldman. An Asian American youngster, 12-year-old Dulcie Pham, alternates with Kylee Geraci in the role of Little Girl, the timid daughter of a fresh-off-the-boat Russian Jewish immigrant.
“We broadened the ethnicity of who is playing what in the show,” Flynn says, “to really reflect a contemporary community telling this story, so that we are very aware we’re in the presence of people we know and people with whom we relate in our current lives, telling this historical story.”
The daughter of immigrant parents herself, Dulcie lives in Columbia, Md., and has been acting since the third grade. “My mom was a refugee,” she says, “so she always tells me stories about coming to America, and I’m so glad I get to play this role.”
Dulcie plays opposite 13-year-old Henry Baratz (who appeared in “The Secret Garden” at the Shakespeare Theatre last fall). The middle-schooler from Chevy Chase alternates (with Holden Browne) in the role of Little Boy, the son of a wealthy merchant. “A lot of hard things happen in the story [that] will make kids think that it’s not a good situation and [ask] what can we do to change it,” he says.
At Arena Stage, a major revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opens Friday. The groundbreaking 1959 drama follows a striving African American family living in a tenement on Chicago’s South Side. When the grandmother spends her late husband’s insurance money on a house in an all-white suburb, the family is thrown into turmoil over whether to take such a big, and potentially dangerous, step.
Eleven-year-old Jeremiah Hasty, a fifth-grader from Cheverly, Md., plays Travis Younger, who, because of his family’s cramped quarters, sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room. Jeremiah watched the 1961 movie with his family, which gave him context for the play, and he figures that other young people “may need some background. But if you really pay attention to the story, [you’ll] kind of just know what’s going on.”
“For the young generation of Jeremiah’s age,” says director Tazewell Thompson, “they’ll see themselves in that little boy, whether it’s a white boy or a black boy, but they’ll see themselves.” And whatever their background, he adds, children will recognize their own families in some way.
“They’ll witness the parents in this play, the obstacles, the problems, the dreams, the wishes, the disappointments, the frustrations — what it is to keep a family going.”
“Ragtime” Through May 20 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833. fords.org. $20-$73.
“A Raisin in the Sun” Friday-May 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.
Christopher Robin, Pooh, Eeyore and the gang will gather in the Hundred Acre Wood in an adaptation of A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, at Olney Theatre Center. From Richmond-based Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre; adapted by Bettye Knapp and directed by Bruce Miller. April 8 at 10 a.m. and 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.; April 9 at noon and 2 p.m. at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org. $15.
Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedy Brighton Beach Memoirs, based on his teen years in Depression-era Brooklyn, is being staged by Theater J with Matt Torney directing. Wednesday-May 7 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-277-3210. theaterj.org. $30-$64. (Recommended for age 11 and older.)
King Lear’s Fool spins the tale of his tragically misguided monarch in Nearly Lear, a “mischievous retelling” of Shakespeare’s play as a 75-minute solo piece, starring Canadian actor Susanna Hamnett as the Fool. May 12-14 at the Kennedy Center, Family Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org. $20. (Recommended for age 9 and older.)