Playwright: Emily Schwartz. At: Strange Tree Group at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets: www.strangetree.org; $15. Runs through: Dec. 22
With this new work, fantasist author Emily Schwartz continues her long exploration of fairy tales and myths, this time using a journey quest format intertwined with an enchanted forest, a magic mirror and two love triangles. However, the overarching riff is a Sleeping Beauty variation.
Instead of the prince waking the seemingly dead princess, it's the princess who's awake in Schwartz's take, while the prince not only seems deadbut actually is dead. Stolen from his tomb by Princess Sara ( Ann Sonneville ) and her allies, Prince Adam ( Scot Cupper ) is a partially-sentient re-animated corpse dragged through the forest, sometimes literally. Their quest is to reach the royal palace before sundown, in order to restore Prince Adam to life as Princess Sara's true love. But is he her true love? Death ( Amber Vaughn Robinson ) is in hot pursuit to reclaim the prince and ultimately administers the litmus test of love to Princess Sara.
At one point Prince Adam kisses Princess Sara and immediately coughs up a small rat that's been consuming his vitals, thereby suggesting not only ghoulishness but also necrophilia. "I think that was the last one," he says. It would be disturbing and downright unwholesome if played for the darkness which it might merit. But Schwartz prefers Edward Gorey to George Romero, or whimsy over nightmare. Indeed, the tone through the first two-thirds of the 100-minute work is far too childlike for my taste, before death finally shows up and levels the field in a wordless scene of considerable beauty ( any more detail would be a spoiler ).
That's the moment the more profound theme of The Dead Prince snaps into place: facing one's mortality. It's a theme sounded in the work's opening moments which introduce a wizard ( Michael Thomas Downey, of supple and sonorous voice ) who has cheated Death by trading places with his own image in a mirror, a subplot which isn't sufficiently developed by Schwartz. Unless she actually intends The Dead Prince to be a family piece, she might easily darken and deepen the workmake it more macabre and scarywithout damaging it. Why not a fairy tale from the crypt, one which balances its Hans Christian Anderson sweetness with some Brothers Grimm blood?
The large ( 12-member ) cast, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, is able and colorful ( in Delia Baseman's motley, vaguely-18th Century costumes ) but they don't all have much to do except play assorted mostly string instruments and sing several pleasant songs which help move the work along. It's not really a musical as billed, but a play with music. Among the principal performers, Scott Cupper is a wonderfully droll corpsehalf rag doll and half airheadunderplaying his verbal bits and executing his physical comedy with aplomb.