Mark Twain’s 1881 novel, The Prince and the Pauper, receives an engaging update (with a “digital, Hip Hop-infused twist”) at Kennedy Center’s Family Theater with the world premiere of the Kennedy Center-commissioned Kid Prince and Pablo, running now through November 3rd.
The Twain original took readers back in time, imagining a 16th Century situation in which an English prince trades places with a lookalike boy from a London slum.
Writer Brian Quijada sets his reimagining of the Twain original on a planet similar too, but different from, ours, and in a country whose history tracks quite closely to ours. That country is plagued by divisions that will feel uncomfortably similar to ones that our country currently suffers under; it’s like a vision of a dystopian future into which we could potentially slide if those divisions worsen.
In the play, immigrants from Spanish-speaking, Southern origins are segregated from the immigrants from English-speaking, European origins who (after displacing an indigenous population) hold power. Hip Hop music, break dancing, and graffiti have been banned.
Kid Prince and Pablo closes November 3, 2019. Details and tickets
Of course, one major distinction between the imagined world of Kid Prince and Pablo and 21st Century USA is royalty. And in the play, the Prince of the title secretly inclines toward the culture that the regime prohibits; when we meet him, he seems more inclined to rap than to reign.
The Prince has not had much opportunity to indulge his musical interests, and that’s where Pablo comes in: after hearing Pablo’s beats through a window, Prince has Pablo brought inside and, after a change of clothes, Prince sets out in disguise, leaving Pablo in his place.
Pablo in the palace must try to conceal his true identity as he becomes drawn into political intrigue, while Prince gets first-hand experience of the lives led by the oppressed, and becomes involved in resistance activities.
The eighty minutes of Kid Prince and Pablo are extremely entertaining, and engage themes that are piercingly relevant and movingly presented. Sure, the resolution is optimistic, but it’s important, in a piece directed toward the young (the Center recommends it to audiences nine years and older), to offer hope as well as to encourage awareness and empathy, which the play does beautifully.
The inclusion of text in Spanish; the awareness of the displacement of native populations; the encouragement to realize our inter-connectedness — the intentions of this play are admirable and one hopes that its concerns land on receptive ears.
Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh coaxes marvelous performances from a five-person ensemble, led by playwright Quijada as the Prince, and another Quijada, Marvin, as Pablo — Marvin Q also composed the original music and plays most (all?) of it live on-stage.
The brothers are terrific, when they work together as well as in their scenes with the ensemble of three actors who play all of the other roles, along with providing narration.
Lynette Rathnam is particularly outstanding in each part she plays, not only making them all distinct, but also bouncing between them with a special crispness. A highlight of Yesenia Iglesias’s roles is her chilling turn as the oppressive General who hopes to manipulate the Prince into even more repressiveness.
Maya Jackson delivers an impressive rap as the leading dissident. (That’s the role that corresponds to the one Errol Flynn played in the Warner Bros film version of the Twain.) The voices of the three ensemble members are lovely — as well as quite versatile.
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Brian Q is charming as the Prince and mines all of the part’s potential for humor. But it is Marvin Q as Pablo who throughout provides not only charm and wit, but also emotional depth. Pablo is constrained by his fragile grasp of English, and Marvin Q makes us feel for him from the jump; later, he delivers the climactic scene with great power.
The design is attractive (particularly the projections by David Bengali), but slightly frustrating, in that, for instance, some costume changes seem magically swift, while some set shifting feels clumsy. One could wish that the manipulation of the set pieces could be smoother.
That said, scenic designer Carolyn Mraz establishes the various locales admirably, and the lighting by Cecilia Durbin is also handsome, if a bit dim occasionally, which works against us hearing some of the early dialogue.
Transposing a sprawling epic into eighty minutes of theatre needs must give certain elements short shrift. Although this adaptation includes the character of the prisoner who won’t escape when given a chance, I feel that that sequence doesn’t achieve its potential poignance and would benefit from being given a little more time.
Those quibbles aside, this is a worthy and entertaining and important contribution to the canon of theatrical literature for the young. You should bring those young people in your life to see it — and some young people should bring their parents to it. There are, inarguably, some politicians and policy-makers whose attitudes should be shaped by the themes of Kid Prince and Pablo.
I highly recommend Kid Prince and Pablo. It provides Twainian wit and wisdom to a Hip Hop beat.
Kid Prince and Pablo by Brian Quijada . Original music by Marvin Quijada . Choreographed by Jocelyn E. Isaac . Directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh . Cast: Yesenia Iglesias, Maya Jackson, Brian Quijada, Marvin Quijada, Lynette Rathnam . Scenic Design: Carolyn Mraz . Costume Design: Danielle Preston . Projection Design: David Bengali . Lighting Design: Cecilia Durbin . Sound Design: Roc Lee . Dramaturg: Abigail Katz . Production Stage Manager: Rachel S. Hamilton . Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Family Theater . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.