Review: Chitra the Girl Prince (Portland, OR)

Guest review by Lakshmi Jagannathan

Giant wheels with spring flowers projected on to them, decorated swings that moved across the stage, twinkling lights, a diaphanous rainbow-colored dress, a princess and a prince in love – this is the stuff of children’s fairy tales. What is unique about the production – Chitra the Girl Prince –  is that it has opened up a whole new genre.

The curtain opens with witty banter between the two storytellers of the play – the God of Love – Madan (Heath Hun Houghton) and the God of Spring – Vasant (Sudipta Majumdar) The two of them steal the show with their expressiveness, dancing and voice. A clever script by the playwright Avantika Shankar laced with biting humor, innuendo and contemporary references makes the play worth any adult’s time.  But framed within that is a dance drama – of a different sort.

In classical Indian dance, the story is mimed. The local audience usually knows all the stories, the songs, so nothing needs to be explained. The dance numbers are often technically complicated and strenuous. Rarely, would you expect the dancer to stop mid-story and put on another hat – that of a theater actor. How do you go from an intense rhythmically precise number into acting and dialogue? But the dancers did that here  – and perfectly. Co-director and dance teacher Anita Menon has trained her young students well through many productions that blend theater and dance and this one was the culmination of that experimentation with multiple art forms – Eastern dance and Western theater.  There were some new actors, as well, new to Indian fold and classical dance, but they blended in with the dancers in a flawless performance.

This time, there was another twist – martial arts. Anita trained at an intensive workshop in Chhau – a blend of martial arts and folk dance – just for this production. A particularly innovative touch was to incorporate the technique of Nattuvangam – the rhythmic sound-play of cymbals to create syncopated patterns – to the martial art sequences. Seasoned fight choreographer Kristen Mun, ensured the authenticity of the battle scenes lending them an almost film-level quality.

Lead actors/dancers Alisha Menon, Ken Yoshikawa, Zero Feeney and Avish Menon delivered a stellar performance. A Bengali dance by Alisha and Sudipta was a nice tribute to the dance form created by the legendary Nobel prize-winning spiritual author and poet Rabindranath Tagore. Local artists had arranged and recorded the music known as Rabindra Sangeet for it – an indication of the extensive collaboration that goes into a production of this caliber.

As if all this creativity was not enough, the story had a message of empowerment as well, relevant to current events. Chitra, the girl prince, agonizes over choices – whether to be a traditional demure princess devoted to her Prince Charming or break barriers and be a warrior princess. Love or career? Be true to yourself or cave in to societal expectations? This play was a great way to get young minds to ponder such questions. Northwest Children’s Theater also laid its professional stamp, ensuring a slick production. Diversity is clearly a theme that runs through the script, the casting and the storyline in this multi-cultural show. It is also sensory friendly to cater to the needs of children on the autism spectrum or those with other sensory difficulties.

Even though it’s supposed to be for children, it turned out to be great entertainment for adults as well, especially when everyone was invited to participate in a mini dance class in the end as the actors took their bow. Kudos to Directors and Choreographers Anita Menon and Sarah Jane Hardy for a stunning show.  A must-see for Portlanders lucky to have this in their town.

The Godfather of Asian American Theatre

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