THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES
at the Coronet Playhouse
You could read this fairy tale to your kid in ten minutes. Or you could take your kid to see this stage adaptation, bloated with the crude excesses of "children's theater" into an hour's playing time. The choice is yours. On the one hand, you have the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale--concise, brilliant, and provocative. On the other hand, you have a bungled adaptation, adult actors giving juvenile performances, and the whole meaning of the fairy tale mired in incoherence. Don't think of it as a choice between literature and theater, but between art and shit. And if you can't tell the difference, try not to impose your ignorance on your kid.
Here are just a few of the stupid things about this adaptation. First, it's set in Japan, which virtually assures the perpetuation of insulting cultural stereotypes. Second, it has a Kabuki motif that has almost nothing to do with Kabuki theater except that, you know, it's kind of oriental and it justifies a cheap set and a couple of black-costumed stagehands who make an elaborate, unnecessary, and insufferably cute ordeal out of changing scenes. Third, the play is overextended with bland filler--lots of hyperactivity and trivial plot embroidery--which only obscures or distracts from the salient features of the fairy tale. Last, and most heinous of all, the ending has been changed.
The way Andersen (whose name is consistently misspelled in the program) wrote it, the emperor realizes that he's actually naked during his procession through town, yet he decides "to go through with it as long as the procession lasts." But the way Judith Kase's adaptation has it, the emperor publicly acknowledges his folly and thanks the two swindlers for teaching them all a big lesson. Not only that, the swindlers aren't really swindlers at all, just pranksters. And the child who exclaims that the emperor is naked isn't so much an innocent little thing (since she lies, and ineptly, earlier in the play) as some kid who's just too dumb to know better.
Told in this way, it makes you wonder, what was that big lesson the emperor learned? Beats me. Max, the kid sitting next to me, didn't know either. Something, maybe, like "If you're worried about looking like a moron, then you probably do." Or "Don't trust a foreign tailor."
What I completely missed was something that can't be reduced to a sophistry. "The Emperor's New Clothes" has become a metaphor for so many things in my adult life, ranging from performance art to "a thousand points of light." It explains why we now wear labels on the outside of our clothes. The story is about hype, vanity, the private lie and the public hoax. I didn't get any of this from this production. I also didn't get a clear picture of Andersen's connection between innocence and truth, not to mention the more insidious pattern of fear, suspicion, pretense, and insecurity woven by the swindlers. But most regrettably censored of all was Andersen's point that the emperor persists in his charade even when he knows he's been exposed. To cut this out, for the sake of a sappy happy ending, is to undermine perhaps the most essential function of a fairy tale, which is to arm the child to confront the grim realities of adult life. Like Nixon, for instance.
Instead, what this production offers is slapstick and low comedy. Jonathan Pitts (as General Gengo) takes a great number of unmotivated pratfalls, without injury but also without laughs. The second-most overused routine is the one where two people sneak around, walking backward until they bump into one another, and boy are they startled. Actually, this routine works once, although Pitts has to jump from the stage into the front row to get the kids to scream, and, even then, the comic effect diminishes along about the fourth row. Used only once, thank God, is that old sight gag where two people bow and bump heads--the oriental equivalent of the handshake buzzer.
You'd think that director Kent Nicholson would realize that it's acts like this that killed vaudeville. This cast couldn't sit on a whoopee cushion to any comic effect, because they'd know they were sitting on it, and make a big display of it, and the display itself would bleed the gag of any spontaneity or surprise. As evidence, I refer to an extremely well behaved matinee audience--a sure sign of failure in children's theater.
But you're probably wondering, as some of my friends were, do they show the emperor naked or what? Of course not. He wears boxer shorts, polka-dot boxer shorts--the traditional underwear of Japanese emperors. OK, the boxer shorts are dumb enough in themselves, but what's really dumb is that there's an earlier scene where the swindlers present the emperor with invisible undergarments. Now what are we supposed to assume? Are we just smart enough to see the boxer shorts, but not the rest of the ensemble? Do only some of us see the boxer shorts? Are there a few really dense people in the audience watching a nude, overweight actor?
I don't seriously think the audience is meant to examine this play in terms of either internal coherency or personal meaning. I suppose--and this is very often the case in the theater--that we're supposed to applaud no matter how threadbare the script, how idle the loom of imagination, or how pretentious the dramatic lie. We are expected to stand and cheer. And the creepy thing about the kids in this audience--although they sat there quietly, attentive yet passive--is that they knew just what to do when the actors took their curtain call. They applauded. Grown-ups really like that.