An occasional look at family-friendly theater around Washington. (Shows are appropriate for age 4 and older unless noted.)
As a fifth-grade teacher in Alexandria public schools and a teaching artist at Young Playwrights' Theater in Washington, playwright Miriam Gonzales encountered many children of immigrants. Their complicated lives inspired her to write The Smartest Girl in the World. Her award-winning 2015 play opens Saturday at Imagination Stage in Bethesda.
"A lot of the kids would tell me stories of how their parents would come home [from work] at three or four in the morning," Gonzales recalls, "and [the children] were in charge of getting a little stepstool and getting on the stove and making dinner for all their siblings, all of them living in one room."
In the play, spirited second-grader Lizzy Martinez (Alina Collins Maldonado) and her brainy older brother, Leo (Dallas Tolentino), love to act out adventures in Lizzy's bedroom. But Lizzy and Leo cope with stress, too: Their protective Mami (Yesenia Iglesias) and Papi (Philip da Costa) work night shifts and must leave their children to fend for themselves. Leo, too, has sickle cell anemia, so his parents don't let him do much besides go to school — not even cram to get on a popular kids' quiz show. When Lizzie decides to study for the show herself, Leo gets upset.
Leo's character is based in part on one of Gonzales's former students — a boy with sickle cell. "He was the most joyful, motivated child I have ever met," she says. "I would say, 'Go the extra mile on your homework and persevere,' and he would say, 'I went the extra mile today!' "
Besides offering a glimpse of immigrant life in America, "The Smartest Girl in the World" reflects myriad aspects of Latino culture. "I really wanted to just bring that family and culture to the stage," says Gonzales, whose roots are in Texas and Mexico. "I just felt it was really essential that young Latinos see themselves onstage and that everybody see how incredibly similar we all are and, at the same time, celebrate how wonderfully diverse we are."
"The Smartest Girl in the World": Saturday through Oct. 29 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. imaginationstage.org. $12-$30. Recommended for age 6 and older.
Having completed an impressive sand castle on the beach, 10-year-old Jeremy Jacob (Kelsey Painter) spies a pirate ship in the distance. Hmmm. His parents, who are heard but never seen, remain engaged with Jeremy's baby sister. So he watches as the pirates row ashore, singing sea shanties at the tops of their lungs. Based on the 2003 picture book by Melinda Long and illustrator David Shannon, a musical version of How I Became a Pirate, with script, music and lyrics by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, has dropped anchor at Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo.
Blustery Captain Braid Beard (Peter Boyer) and his crew remark upon Jeremy's digging technique, in hopes he'll dig a hole big enough to hide their loot. Cajoling Jeremy with the rousing tune "And a Good One to Boot," the pirates recruit him into their scruffy band.
Director-choreographer Jenny Male says she thinks Jeremy's fantasy life has a lot to do with his baby sister taking so much of his parents' time.
"When you're used to being the only child and suddenly a sibling is getting all the attention . . . the older sibling suddenly is trying to figure out this whole [new] world. And I think for Jeremy, he's created this very lively world with these great characters that are actually based on people he knows."
The pirate ship created for the set looks a lot like a nautical playground — a perfect place for a pirates' sword fight. Although the script doesn't call for sword fights, Male, whose résumé lists considerable experience as a fight choreographer, couldn't pass up the chance. She has staged a brief one, with her "trained, certified actor-combatants" working upstage — far from kids in the front rows — and with other actors standing guard. Besides, it's only a 10-second fight. Though, Male adds, "you'd be surprised how many moves fit into 10 seconds. That's actually a long stretch of sword fighting, once you go fast."
"How I Became A Pirate" Through Oct. 22 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2270. adventuretheatre-mtc.org. $19.50.
During a rehearsal last month for The Adventures of Peter Pan, Synetic Theater's troupe of actor-dancer-acrobats were in full swashbuckling mode. In one studio, Ryan Sellers, who plays Captain Hook, worked with castmates on what he described as "a hybrid of broadsword technique and Georgian [Republic of Georgia] sword dancing." Next door, artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili worked more quietly on a key moment when the Lost Boys of Neverland meet Wendy Darling (Kathy Gordon), whom they've just shot down with bow and arrow. Peter Pan (Alex Mills) chides them strongly for it. The Boys also vroom around pushing single bicycle wheels with big handlebars and head lights, like a whimsical sort of gang. You know you're in Synetic territory now.
Synetic's version was adapted by Ed Monk, working from J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel, and then that script was altered to mesh with Synetic's acro-balletic style. In this telling, Peter and Tinker Bell were siblings. Tink has come back from the afterlife as a fairy to safeguard her brother, thus her rivalry with Wendy is of the sibling sort. (A fun footnote: Anna Tsikurishvili, daughter of Paata and choreographer Irina Tsikurisvili, will make her professional stage debut as Tinker Bell. The show opens on her 16th birthday.)
As for the flying, Synetic won't be hooking actors up to wires and pulleys. "We've found a way to do it equally, if not an even better way, visually," Tsikurishvili says. "It will be a more cinematic style, more Synetic style. . . . It will be thrilling to watch."
"The Adventures of Peter Pan" Oct. 18 though Nov. 19 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. 866-811-4111. synetictheater.org. $20-$60. Recommended for age 7 and older.
A young girl invites her shy imaginary friend to make music with dishes in a remount of Arts on the Horizon's Drumming With Dishes by David Kilpatrick. Friday-Oct. 21 at the Lab at Convergence, 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, and Oct. 25-29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 703-967-0437. artsonthehorizon.org. $9 in Alexandria; $12 at the Atlas. Recommended for ages 2 to 5.
Our Town, the 1938 classic by Thornton Wilder, gets a fresh staging by director Aaron Posner in Olney Theatre Center's intimate Theatre Lab, featuring seven actors of diverse backgrounds and Bunraku-style puppets as supporting characters. Through Nov. 12 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org. $49-$74. Recommended for age 10 and older.
A prince vows to tackle a list of impossible tasks but can't do them without Blancaflor, the Girl Wizard, in a bilingual stage adaptation by Cecilia Cackley of the Spanish fairy tale, commissioned for Gala Hispanic Theatre's young-audience Galita wing. Saturday-Oct. 21 at Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174. galatheatre.org. $10 -$12. Weekday shows are designated as student matinees and weekend shows are for all audiences.
The Puppet Co. in Glen Echo is offering Pinocchio (through Nov. 17) and The Nutcracker (Nov. 24-Dec. 31). The Puppet Co., 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-5380. thepuppetco.org. $12.