An occasional look at family-friendly theater around Washington. (Shows are appropriate for age 5 and older unless noted.)
Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper" gets a South Asian reworking in The Princess & the Pauper: A Bollywood Tale at Imagination Stage.
In playwright Anu Yadav's version, set centuries ago in India, Razia (played by Anjna Swaminathan) is a pampered princess bored with palace life, who insists on switching places with the timid Rani (Alex Palting), a poor seamstress's daughter, because they look so alike. It offers Razia a chance to wander through the city anonymously to see how the 99 percent live, and it raises Rani's consciousness to the unfairness of it all. The villain is the comically greedy, narcissistic Wazir (Jimmy Mavrikes), who was chief adviser to Princess Razia's late father and is now set to take over the throne.
Yadav was born and raised in Iowa and remembers watching Bollywood musicals with friends who, like her, had South Asian roots. She has worked in Washington theater since the early 2000s as a writer and performer, with a focus on such issues as poverty and inclusion. Adapting Twain's 1881 novel and setting it in the land of her ancestors with strands of Hindu and Muslim traditions gave her a chance to indulge some of her interests.
"I love it because, if you think about it, it's a way to talk about wealth inequity," Yadav said after a recent rehearsal, in which choreographer Tehreema Mitha had put nine actors through their none-too-easy paces in one of the show's Bollywood-inspired numbers. (The score is by Indian American composer Aks.) "Maybe a child watching this wouldn't say this or think this, but I really see it as a feminist journey. These young girls who kind of discover their connection, their minds, like trusting your mind. How revolutionary and important is that for anybody?"
Besides stirring the cultural melting pot, Yadav took delight in examining the Sufi notion of divine love. "It's just really cool to write a play that's exploring the concept of divine love and Sufi tradition as a revolutionary social force as a children's play, and there are songs and you can sing and celebrate," she said. "It's a great gift."
"The Princess & the Pauper: A Bollywood Tale" Feb. 10-March 18 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. imaginationstage.org. $12-$30.
In "Digging Up Dessa," a new Kennedy Center play commissioned from playwright Laura Schellhardt, the title character (played by Alina Collins Maldonado), a 12-year-old science geek in love with fossils, doesn't get along with her mother, Esther (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), a hippie-ish singer-songwriter. But the play deals with more than science vs. art. There's also a loss that mother and daughter can't seem to discuss, either.
Dessa has an imaginary friend she'd rather confide in — actually a real person from history who visits her imagination: the very British Mary Anning (Jackie Reneé Robinson), a paleontology pioneer who discovered fossil after fossil in the 19th century, but who was given little credit because she was poor, female and had no formal education. Dessa becomes obsessed with finding a new fossil in a nearby construction site and using it to make a splash at a science fair. She also wants to highlight Anning's legacy, because the local natural history museum sure doesn't.
In a Kennedy Center rehearsal room recently, director Rives Collins had his "Dessa" cast slip gradually into the play's world. First, they guessed what songs would be on the characters' playlists. Then they recalled what it felt like to be 12. From there, Collins steered them into the last scenes of the play, when big emotions lead to big reconciliations and renewed self-confidence.
For playwright Schellhardt, that's the point. "I think more and more, we need stories where this younger generation is learning to help themselves — that mentorship is important, but that they should also be looking to each other, to support each other and to help each other through, and that they are going to be responsible for creating this next world," she said.
"Digging Up Dessa" Saturday-Feb. 18 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org. $20. Recommended for age 10 and older.
The tiniest theatergoers can sit on the floor for Inside Out, about two children who concoct fantasies using the clothes, at Imagination Stage through Feb. 11, followed in spring by Balloonacy, about a lonely old man visited by a red balloon that reminds him of a boyhood adventure, March 10-April 8. Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. Recommended for ages 1-5. imaginationstage.org. $14. (After closing at Imagination Stage, "Inside Out" will run at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Feb. 24-March 4. 202-399-7993. atlasarts.org. $12.)
Older kids will get a kick out of the touring Broadway musical Something Rotten!, a spoof of all things theatrical, from Shakespeare's plays to musical comedy. Tuesday-Feb. 18 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 800-514-3849.
thenationaldc.org. $48-$178. Recommended for age 8 and older.
A boy wakes up with gum in his hair and all it's downhill from there in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the 1998 musical based on Judith Viorst's laugh-out-loud 1972 picture book , with book and lyrics by Viorst and music by Shelly Markham. Feb. 9-March 31 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2270. adventure
History-loving middle-schoolers may be fascinated by Hold These Truths, a solo piece by Jeanne Sakata about Gordon Hirabayashi, who sued the U.S. government over the curfews and internment camps aimed at Japanese American citizens such as himself during World War II. Feb. 23-April 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.
arenastage.org. $40-$111. Recommended for age 12 and older.