The pandemic hasn’t stopped the tradition of family-friendly December theater offerings, and Quintessence joins in with The Little Princess, Suli Holum and Priyanka Shetty’s adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess. This performance successfully incorporates the participatory elements of live theater onscreen, but a clumsy adaptation from page to stage makes it difficult to recognize the beloved narrative.
This online production (Holum also directs) attempts to ease the awkwardness of Zoom theater in a number of ways, and interactive elements pepper the play—a nice touch to engage the young target audience. The show opens with the actors welcoming the viewers, some of whom have opted in to participating via Zoom. Everyone is invited to participate in the scenes, and viewers are occasionally addressed by the actors at different intervals. As each actor is physically separate from the others, the performance also utilizes props and miniature sets by You-Shin Chen (one room is even worn almost as a hat), a clever detail that allows the cast to set the scene and interact with their environment in a playful way despite being apart.
A show for the readers?
Sara Crewe is a rich, imaginative young girl living at a private boarding school in London, but her luxurious and pampered life takes a sudden turn with the death of her father and the loss of his fortune—but she is not without friends. The story at Quintessence, however, may be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the narrative, and relies heavily on audience members’ prior knowledge to make sense of the production. Characters and key plot elements are introduced abruptly in a way that may leave uninitiated viewers confused.
For example, “world-famous magician” Ram Dass (Simran Bal) first appears as he peers into a miniature set of Sarah’s garret room and sneaks inside to criticize its squalor. At first glance, this situation is alarming at best, and it takes a full half hour to reveal the kindhearted surprise he intends for her. In the book, the character of Ram Dass is on friendly terms with Sarah before he alters her environment, but the play implies that the two have never met when this occurs, drastically changing the tone of this scene. It is only in the last few minutes of the show that viewers unfamiliar with Hodgson’s novel learn that he is not merely a strange man with a monkey sneaking into children’s rooms.
The charm of going live
Unlike some other pandemic-era productions, The Little Princess is performed live, rather than being a prerecorded, one-size-fits-all show. In Lee Cortopassi’s video design, the distanced actors’ feeds are positioned relative to each other, with specially designed home studios behind them. Under director Holum, when props are shared or passed between characters, the cast does an excellent job of making the actions seem natural and real, as if they are all in the same room. The show prefers physical props over Zoom backgrounds and isn’t afraid to play with the online medium in ways that stand out from other digital performances. While this does sometimes mean that cameras are out of focus, it also means the beauty of live theater lives on(line).
Image description: A close-up on actor Renea Brown, playing Sarah Crew in The Little Princess. Brown is lying on her stomach with her chin balanced on her hands folded in front of her. She’s smiling in an expectant way. She wears a white dress and a white bow in her hair. Beside her, there’s a doll that looks like an Indian woman, wearing a gold and purple sari.
What, When, Where
The Little Princess. By Frances Hodgson Burnett, adapted by Suli Holum and Priyanka Shetty from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Directed by Suli Holum. Streaming performances through December 27, 2020, by Quintessence Theatre. quintessencetheatre.org.