By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Harried parents don't have time to wade through a review that yammers on about the sociopolitical ramifications of a children's theater production. Yet being childless myself and, as a critic, inordinately fond of my own opinions, I can't help but rhapsodize about the wonderful Wildean darts to the establishment heart that a fable like Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes delivers. The Dallas Children's Theater's typically handsome, slick staging, this one helmed by DCT veteran Artie Olaisen, serves up slapstick laughs to the kids, but retains the moral in Andersen's mordant morality play about the sacred conscience of the individual.
So for time-strapped parents, I'll dispense early on the recommendation you need. By all means, bring the kids...providing they have the attention span to enjoy a live performance, albeit one that lasts only a bit over an hour without intermission. Parents get smacked around a lot for allowing their children to dissolve like sunken, docile bones in the Coke can of popular culture. But there's no point torturing yourself, your child, and the ticket-buyers around you who might otherwise enjoy the show in the name of exposing your offspring to theater, as happened with a few of the more restless, chattery, oblivious young audience members around me.
For variety's sake, do make an experimental visit to the DCT with your kids. But if they're bored, and you keep dragging them back, you risk generating a slew of bad memories about live theater that they'll carry with them into adulthood. Having been raised on a diet of horror movies, comic books, '70s network tit-coms, and Stephen King, I don't know that the 9-year-old me would've begged for a return to the theater after seeing The Emperor's New Clothes. Change "pig" to "piglet" in that bromide about the futility of teaching the beleaguered porcine beast how to sing, and you have an age-appropriate lesson in trying to force culture on the kiddos.
Now that I've told you how to raise your children, let me tell you how to interpret Dallas Children's Theater's sumptuously costumed, energetically delivered Hans Christian Andersen saga. The company has imported Timothy Mason's tart, manic dramatization from its commissioned premiere at The Children's Theatre of Minneapolis. It's also mixed in the dance stylings of internationally noted period expert Catherine Turocy, co-founder and artistic director of The New York Baroque Dance Company and now a Dallas resident. Are Turocy's credentials eye-popping? Well, considering that the French government knighted her for her ballet choreography, yes. Is her "advisory" role to choreographer Nancy Schaeffer's rather brief court-dance movements vital to the success of this show? Nope. Her resume is there to set the adults' hearts aflutter. Far more crucial to the play's storybook-illustration look are the costumes of Mary Therese D'Avignon, who's designed everything from ox garb to an elephant's wardrobe during her 14-year association with the theater.
At the center of DCT's cartoon-paced 18th-century farce is a vain, sartorially profligate emperor (a hilarious Douglass Burks, who's sort of like Mr. Blackwell with the authority to behead fashion offenders) whose flamboyant taste in clothes would blind the Sun King. He's in the habit of giving medals to his cowardly, stuttering Minister of War (Bo Barron) for pointing out lint on the emperor's lapel, while ignoring the common sense dealt by his long-suffering Minister of State (Thomas Walker, who speaks every line as if he's breathing helium instead of oxygen).
Needless to say, this fattened ego just begs for slaughter by some enterprising bladesman. The duties go to a team of con artists, Flo (Cecelia Flores) and Roscoe (Karl Schaeffer), who haven't even mastered their craft: They come upon the emperor's kingdom tarred and feathered from their last botched grift. But they needn't be master criminals to fool a ruler who's already done such a royal job on himself. Flo and Roscoe present themselves as expert weavers who, for the right price, will create a garment out of magic cloth that has a most helpful property: Only the wise can see its beauty. The material is invisible to fools. And so Flo and Roscoe spend their time drinking wine and weaving nothing, while The Emperor and his courtesans stumble all over themselves to recognize the splendor of the work-in-progress...until the fateful day the ruler models his new suit for the masses.
The very title of Hans Christian Andersen's revelatory fable on the importance of individual insight in the face of mass stupidity has been brandished against political follies from the right, middle, and left. But The Emperor's New Clothes has been overused as a parable of the dangers of political vanity. Andersen's timeless story does something more pointed than speak truth to power; it speaks truth to the powerless in a democracy frequently intimidated by a credentialed few. Have you ever heard something that was undecorated nonsense from a partisan spokesperson? Of course, but less recognized is the way religious leaders, lawyers, media pundits, and doctors intimidate us with their badges and demand that we not only call their bull wisdom, but that we pay handsomely for it. The death of common sense has been mourned at essay- and book-length, but we're unwilling to confront its killer--our fear of expert weavers whose magic cloth has the power to reveal our foolishness.