Two Timely Takes on Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales

Posted December 10, 2018 6:55 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Charles Dickens often dominates the stage at this time of year, with variations on “A Christmas Carol” only slightly less common than jingle bells and jolly Santas. This season, however, two theater companies are presenting tales by a Dickens contemporary who never wrote a holiday story but still has much to say about greed and goodness.

That’s Hans Christian Andersen, whose work appears in adaptations being performed next door to each other at Theater Row in Manhattan. “The Emperor’s Nightingale,” from Pan Asian Repertory Theater, and “The Emperor’s New Clothes & More Magical Stories by Hans Christian Andersen,” from New York City Children’s Theater, both offer inventive staging and stellar design, but only one transcends pure entertainment.

“The Emperor’s Nightingale,” at the Beckett Theater, combines Andersen’s “The Nightingale” with 18th-century Chinese politics. Damon Chua, the playwright, presents a power struggle between teenage half brothers, Prince Hongshi (Roger Yeh) and Prince Bao (Jonathan Frye), whose father, the emperor (Brian Kim), challenges them to prove who’s more worthy to succeed him.

Bao’s mother, the empress (Ya Han Chang), urges him to seek advice from the Nightingale, who’s more valued in this version for its knowledge of the Chinese people’s problems than for the beguiling song in Andersen’s story. Played by Leanne Cabrera, the Nightingale exhorts Bao to help the poor, but he focuses on winning the throne. The more venal Hongshi, allying himself with a scheming minister (Dinh James Doan), uses a mechanical bird, powered by a hidden human, to deceive his sibling into abandoning the living Nightingale’s counsel.

Chua introduces other characters, including a tiger whose halves (front and hind) talk to each other. Portrayed by two of the actors in an ingenious get-up (Karen Boyer designed the costumes), the beast is too silly to be scary. And that’s part of the problem. Many comic elements — gossiping pandas, a rap by the princes — are played so broadly that little seems at stake. Briskly directed by Chongren Fan, the show is fun, but watching it feels more like cheering pro wrestling than like witnessing a struggle for the soul of an empire.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” at the Clurman Theater, is as devoted to making children reflect as to making them laugh. Adapted by Barbara Zinn Krieger and devised and directed by Adrienne Kapstein, the play begins in the present in Central Park, where a girl, intent on texting, sits down next to Andersen’s famous statue. The statue (Emmanuel Elpenord) stirs to life, though the girl seems to think that he’s just a stranger, reading. After he persuades her to look at his book — she starts with “The Princess and the Pea” — he vanishes, and she’s swept into the world of his stories.

Portrayed as a bewildered but intrepid young soul by Ayla Bellamy, this nameless heroine becomes not just an onlooker, but a key player, in the tales that follow. At first taken into confidence by the crooks promising the emperor a fabulous new wardrobe, she also exposes that he’s, well, exposed. (Don’t worry, parents — he parades in his underwear.) She then finds herself as the helpful kitchen maid in another emperor’s court in “The Nightingale,” only to wind up among birds in “The Ugly Duckling.” To her shock, she discovers that she’s that story’s titular character — and what could be a weirder-looking duck than a human?

Elpenord, Laura Hankin, Tali Custer and Nadav Wiesel play multiple roles in the production, which more closely follows Andersen’s “Nightingale”: Here, a vain emperor prizes this forest bird (a puppet by Eric Wright) for its song, only to reject the living creature in favor of a shiny mechanical version whose music ultimately fails. (Charlie Greenberg is the show’s composer.) When Death comes for the grief-stricken ruler, and the real nightingale’s song revives him, the moment isn’t just happy — it is as poignant as Andersen might have wished.

Event Information:

“The Emperor’s Nightingale”

Through Dec. 16 at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, panasianrep.org. Running time: 55 minutes.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes & More Magical Stories by Hans Christian Andersen”

Through Dec. 22 at the Clurman Theater at Theater Row, Manhattan; nycchildrenstheater.org. Running time: 50 minutes.