By CJ Williams
‘Matchless and The Happy Prince’ – Written and adapted by Gregory Maguire; Cast and Sound – Tess Degan, Raya Malcolm, Marc Pierre, Alan White; Scenic and Puppetry Designed by David Fichter; Sets by Will Cabell; Lighting by John Malinowski; Stage Management by Katherine Humbert. Presented by Central Square’s Studio Theater and Produced by The Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave. Cambridge, through December 31.
“Matchless” is a quick but immediately engaging jaunt into theatrical wonder, and its innovative use of the intimate space at Central Square Theater, props, puppets, and its actors’ versatility bring the fairy tale world vividly to life. The story – Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale of the little match girl – is adapted by well-known “Wicked” author, Gregory Maguire, and is presented in conjunction with Oscar Wilde’s short fairy tale “The Happy Prince”. In the first, a small girl tries to sell matches on a frigid winter night, her only warmth a ragged shawl, and her dead mother’s shoes – she loses the shoes in a near-collision in the street, and desperate, unable to sell her wares, strikes matches for warmth. In “Prince”, the statue of a once-living, selfish young royal watches the pains of humanity from his pedestal – and though his heart is now lead, it aches as it never did when it was flesh and he lived in his palace, isolated from the sufferings of others. He gives up his eyes (sapphires) to save a mother and her child, to aid a struggling writer, etc. But it is a little swallow who forgoes his migration to Egypt that runs his errands of charity; and the cold finally catches the brave little bird, just as it catches the little match girl. While the two stories might seem a stretch to match, the crew at Central Square have linked them well.
Part of the consistency and believability derive from the use of that small cast. Multiple characters are played by one performer — for example, newcomer Raya Malcolm is charming and tragic as both the swallow in “Prince” and the Little Matchgirl (while also playing 2 or 3 supporting roles as well). Likewise, Marc Pierre plays the young boy, Frederik, in “Matchless”, while also holding down the part of the Prince.
It is a show pitched to families and young children. After reading the plot summary, you might be wondering where this tragedy fits with holiday heartiness, or could possibly appeal to little ones. But one highlight of the show that simply can’t be summed up in a report of the plot is narrative framing, and the creative use of found objects, light, shadow, and the deft voices of the actors, to tell the story. This gentle and light-hearted framing bring in the sadness of the two stories without falling under it. Like many fairy stories, the fantastic and the distant give the audience detachment enough to enjoy the play of light and shadow — and that play is quite literal here too, as we get to see shadow-puppets and silhouettes on screens act our portions of the play.
I won’t spoil the endings of both stories – or exactly how they’re matched, but if you’re looking for an hour and half visual wonder, you couldn’t do much better than a few seats at “Wicked” author, Gregory Maguire. Better still, bring the kids — and enjoy the chance to meet the cast at the end, play with the puppets and props, and experience some heart-warming reminders of what heals a broken heart. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/matchless-happy-prince-2016/