By Joseph Hurley
THE HAPPY PRINCE, by Oscar Wilde. Active Driveway, in association with the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through April 4.
Oscar Wilde wrote the fairy tale "The Happy Prince" in 1888, mainly as an entertainment for his sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, who were then, respectively, 3 and 2 years old.
Now, director Bob Flanagan and designer Akira Yoshimura have turned Wilde’s poignant, rueful fable into a 60-minute puppet show that will be running at the belowstairs space at the Irish Repertory Theatre at least through April 4, with an extension possible.
That "The Happy Prince" is exquisite and filled with imagination and delight should come as no surprise to anyone fortunate enough to have seen "Rafferty Rescues the Moon," the show the same creative team did on the same cozy stage last season.
This time, as last time, Flanagan and Yoshimura have blended wit, originality and acute awareness of the various nuances of the puppet-master’s art and come up with an enormously enjoyable work, as satisfying to adults as it is to the children for whom it was ostensibly intended.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
That "The Happy Prince" works for young viewers was clear at a recent Friday night performance when three little blondes from Brewster sat in the first row without even once looking away from the stage.
And why would they look anywhere else, when Flanagan, Yoshimura, and their colleagues, including Gabriel Lewis and Michael Greenlake, who adapted the text, have filled W. Scott McLucas Theatre with such delightful creatures?
There’s the Prince himself, almost life-size and hewn, or so it seems, of solid gold, with gleaming eyes of sapphire and a moth that moves and speaks. Add to that a pair of birds, which the text calls "Swallows," but which, with bills of cobalt, snowy chests and wings and backs of jet, resemble a daffy cross between the blue-footed booby and a smallish penguin, with perhaps a bit of some exotic strain of exotic parrot added for good measure.
The fundamental seriousness of both Flanagan and Yoshimura is reflected in the purity of their work with various forms of puppets and marionettes. Students of puppetry will see in "the Happy Prince," as they did in "Rafferty Rescues the Moon," the influences of various of the world’s theatrical forms, ranging from wayang kulit, the stick-operated leather shadow puppets of Indonesia, through the three-quarter life-size Bunraku figures of the traditional Japanese stage, to more conventional hand puppets and string-controlled marionettes.
To the accompaniment of Cheryl Hardwick’s light, feathery musical score, always helpful but never obtrusive, the work, which its creators term "a puppet and masque show," tells the story of a prince who, after his death, is immortalized as a statue on a hill high above the city he ruled.
From this height, the prince is forced to observe all the ugliness, cruelty, and sorrow he managed to ignore when he was alive.
Aided by one of the swallows, the prince sacrifices himself to help the unfortunate individuals he hadn’t really noticed during his lifetime.
Wilde’s tale is drenched in irony, since the prince is anything but happy, and his country is nothing like its name, Sans Souci, which translates as "Without Care."
In addition to adaptors Lewis and Greenlake, who double as puppeteers, the onstage talent present in "The Happy Prince" includes Lisa Haim, Dan Weissbrodt, and 9-year-old Mac Smith, whom Active Driveway calls its "Head Stage Hand."
Bob Flanagan and Akira Yoshimura have both worked for "Saturday Night Live," in addition to which, not surprisingly, Flanagan is a veteran of the Muppet Workshop and Jim Henson Productions. Yoshimura has designed productions for the Irish Repertory Theatre.
One of the most delightful moments in "The Happy Prince" comes along after the show is technically over, and even after most of the audience has left the auditorium. One of the puppet handlers spots a child still struggling into his or her coat, and comes down from the stage, with one of the swallow puppets in his hand.
The "conversation" which occupies the next 5 or 10 minutes, with the blue-billed bird exchanging questions and answers with the enraptured youngster ,is enchantment in its purest form and serves as a small reminder of just how gifted Flanagan and Yoshimura and their team really are, and just how much joy is contained in "The Happy Prince."