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'The King Stag' Prances for Families at Classika

Classika’s family series of shows designed for children and adults to attend together continues with a new adaptation of an eighteenth century comic fable "The King Stag." The weekend shows take place on Classika’s main stage in their store-front theater on South 28th Street in Shirlington.

"The King Stag" is a 1761 play by Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, adapted by Classika’s Artistic Director and Co-Founder Inna Shapiro, in the style of the sixteenth-century commedia dell’arte, which used well-recognized characters in distinctive costumes and masks.

The play doesn’t rely on any of the stock characters, like Harlequin or Pantalone, that marked the style in its heyday of the style. Shapiro does make the most of the brightly colored, warm-toned costumes and designs – the elements of commedia dell’arte that made the style so splashy and intriguing to centuries of audiences without movies or television.

Shapiro fills the small stage with prancing animals, broadly sketched and easily recognizable characters such as a King and a courtier and tells her story with an effective straight-forward manner.

The first act concentrates on the story of a King with an ingenious device for determining if his advisors were telling the truth or not: a statue in his throne room that smiled or frowned depending on the truth of what it heard.

In the second act, the story shifts to the King’s use of a magic spell that allows him to inhabit the body of any corpse. Given the opportunity, the King transfers himself into the body of a stag for a new experience. A member of his court overhears the magic words of the king’s spell, and uses them to take up residence in the King’s body.

The vivid colors of both the set and the costumes, along with recorded music, cast an initial spell as the show begins and the stories are told clearly so that younger children are intrigued and enjoy the entire performance.

The cast of five plays each part as broadly as possible, with a good deal of prancing and dancing, especially by Patricia Howard playing a deer. Steve Dantzler is the King, and he is a big man who can carry off the broad strokes of humor Shapiro asks of him.

The entire cast is new to Classika where they use a unique performance style reminiscent of the Russian theatrical troupes that are the heritage of Shapiro and her Classika co-founder, Alyona Ushe. That style has resulted in a number of charming performances over the years that Classika has been producing shows in Shirlington.

But perhaps this cast hasn’t yet mastered the technique. Or perhaps Shapiro has just intentionally paced the play slower than usual. Whatever the cause, the result is a show that seems to plod along at an ever slower pace.

Still, there are a number of colorful effects and some fun moments. Part of the fun of the mixed up identities, in scenes involving the body-switching spell, is Shapiro’s use of off-stage amplification of one actor speaking while another, on-stage, lip syncs the lines. It is done with enough clarity that even the youngest children in the audience catch on to the trick and enjoy it.