The Emperor and the Nightingale, City Lit Theater Company, at Edgewater Presbyterian Church. Adapter-director Page Hearn isn't concerned with the art of illusion in this straightforward staging of the Hans Christian Andersen classic. Actors circle the space before and after this brisk, 40-minute one-act, breaking the fourth wall by interacting with audience members, inviting children to stretch with them. Set, props, and costumes are minimal, and the cast of four double and triple up on roles to portray all the denizens of the Emperor's kingdom.
This focus on storytelling produces decidedly excellent results. "Only in silence is possibility born," explains narrator Tara Sullivan as the show begins. It's true: Hearn's script is filled with bawdy comedic peaks and tender dramatic valleys, holding the audience enraptured until the very end. And the informality of this City Lit production allows the cast to navigate some complex themes--including death and renewal--in a refreshingly nondidactic way.
All the actors give strong performances, but the real star of the production is Lynda White's exquisitely detailed nightingale hand puppet, manipulated by Robin Coffin. Instead of anthropomorphizing the creature, White creates a realistic-looking songbird whose character is nevertheless as fleshed out as any of the Emperor's servants. The Emperor and the Nightingale stands as a model of no-frills, low-tech children's theater.