THE LAND OF THE DRAGON
Chicago Children's Theatre
at the Diller Street Theatre
When the wicked witch gets popped into the oven at the end of a fairy tale, no one complains. The ogre may lose his treasure, the giant plunge from his cloud castle, and we never lose our sense that it's simply justice being served.
But why are the princesses all beautiful? Why are the young princes all handsome and strong? There's no justice there, but fairy tales never even bother to argue that beauty is the outward sign of virtue--why would they? We wouldn't believe them if they did. It's simply a fact that youth and beauty are rewarded in the world of fantasy; age and ugliness are punished (by the oven, the ax, the sudden fall through a pit straight to hell). That still seems a wrongheaded lesson to repeat to ourselves in the tales we cherish.
Or maybe not. One of our best interpreters of fairy tales has a persuasive reply to the beauty question. Here's Bruno Bettelheim on "Snow White," from his book The Uses of Enchantment:
"The prepubertal or adolescent child may say to himself, 'I do not compete with my parents, I am already better than they are; it's they who are competing with me.' Unfortunately . . . . there are parents who maintain that they are in all ways as good as their adolescent child: the father who attempts to keep up with the youthful strength and sexual prowess of his son; the mother who tries in looks, dress, and behavior to be as youthfully attractive as her daughter." It's a fascinating idea: beauty is a matter of justice, the natural possession of the young, and the sign of their coming victory against the ogres and witches and giants--that is to say, us.
The war over beauty is the idea behind The Land of the Dragon, the latest production of Chicago Children's Theatre. As the play begins, it's the eve of Princess Jade Pure's 18th birthday. She must wed by the stroke of noon the next day or lose her throne to her aunt, Precious Harp. But Jade Pure has no suitors because Precious Harp has persuaded the kingdom that Jade Pure is hideous. She's even gotten the girl herself to believe the lie, and locked her up safe from mirrors and sympathetic eyes that might undeceive her.
Enter Road Wanderer, a young man with raven black hair, an antisocial attitude, and a pet dragon. Road Wanderer reveals the truth, wins the maiden's heart, throws a snit, and vanishes, leaving Jade Pure with a new imperious attitude and a few short hours to find her rescuer and marry him.
It's a fine setup, but one that requires an ungodly amount of exposition. And Madge Miller's script, first produced in the 1940s, seems to have no ambitions beyond communicating the plot. It succeeds on that level: my five-year-old companion followed the story more clearly than I would have expected. But there just wasn't enough action to hold his attention--or mine.
When there was action, it was well-handled. When the princess announces that she will only wed a man with a dragon, for instance, there's a nice scene in which the princess's conniving relations disguise themselves as gaudy monsters and terrify each other. And the dragon is delightful--a gorgeous, green quilted creature with green horns, played with elegance and puppy-dog charm by Daniel Harray.
Touches throughout suggest what the company, and director Edward Kahn, could have accomplished with a stronger script. Mary Rose Kitch as Precious Harp is an appropriately maternal sort of villain; dressed in her dragon suit she had a comical swiveling gait that gave small children the giggles. Pam Brailey's costumes develop the age-war theme in an interesting way: Most of the characters dress in storybook chinoiserie done in bright, crayon-box hues. The dragon, appropriately, dips down to an earlier age level: he's an infant's puffy stuffed animal. Jade Pure, our heroine, wears an authentic-looking Chinese costume in the subtler colors of adulthood.
The message of the costume is reinforced by the actress who wears it. Tonray Ho as Jade Pure is the only Asian American in the cast. That's a complication in some ways: I imagine some of the young and extremely Caucasian audience may not have recognized her beauty at first. But in the long run, her difference is useful to the play, a reminder of the separate destiny that awaits adults.
Dragon isn't a great show, but it's a good one. At the performance I saw, kids around me bounced and bobbled and chatted the afternoon away and still managed to laugh at every single joke. Toward the end, the story calls for the dragon to fly to the top of a bell tower and prevent the clock from striking twelve. The cast stare aghast over the heads of the audience at the rear wall of the theater where the deed is hypothetically taking place. All around me, small heads swiveled, looking for a sight their owners surely knew couldn't possibly be there. Then they looked again.
You can't ask for much more than that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Bridges.