The Girl Who Would be King, produced by Absolute Theatre and Full Circle Theatrics, opens June 25; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm (no performance July 4; until Aug. 1. Tickets: $20. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro, Hollywood; 323.230.7261. www.absolutetheatrela.org
Once upon a time there was a great king who desired to retire in his kingdom of Flugelhorn. He had only one problem standing in the way. He had no male heir.Â Fortunately his brother, the Duke of Lesser Flugel, had a son to take the throne.Â However, this so-called son was actually a daughter who had been raised as a boy in anticipation of this very moment. As the “son” Basil takes the throne, the struggle for power leads to gender crisis, a cry for freedom and love.
“There is something very powerful starting with the words ‘once upon a time’ because it evokes a very basic human need to hear a story,” says Richard Tatum, the director of award-winning playwright Jan O’Connor’s The Girl Who Would be King. Tatum combines the simplicity of a traditional fairytale with comedy and modern issues to bring audiences together, he hopes, in an experience filled with thought and entertainment.
The Girl Who Would be King is Tatum’s first play as both director and producer of Absolute Theatre and he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. He and his wife Tracy Eliott, who alternates as the Storyteller with Shelley Delayne, conceived Absolute Theatre after he left the Ark Theatre Company where he was a founding member and associate artistic director. Among the plays he directed while there were The Country Wife, On the Verge Good and the world premiere of The Big Ever After.
Based on Mark Twain’s short story Medieval Romance, about a girl secretly raised as a boy in order to be king, The Girl Who Would be King encapsulates everything Absolute Theatre wants to represent as a company.
“I first encountered this play a year and a half ago when my wife was in a reading of it. I fell in love with the heart and the theatrical style,” says Tatum. “It really fulfills everything we want to do, great unpublished, unperformed works.”
While Twain leaves the tangled plot unsolved, O’Connor points to more of a resolution in her play by showing the audience where we were and where we have ended up this far in the battle over gender identity and freedom.
“Yes there is a literal plot point of resolution but it’s more question-provoking than anything else,” says Tatum. “The play gets right to the heart of the issue of freedom to choose who you want to love and asks what is wrong with allowing someone to love a person of the same gender.”
With highly disputed social issues, the use of a modern narrator in the midst of this medieval tale is a key tool in getting the audience to confront these uncomfortable topics in a safe and humorous way. “It’s almost Bertolt Brecht meets Comedia,” says Tatum who describes his directing style for this show as very Meta.
“It’s more than a wink at the audience with the narrator; it’s more like a flag wave,” says Tatum. “You know you are watching a play but at the same time the storyteller has attitudes about things that happen in the show and makes you very aware of them as the plot progresses.”
Although the narrator is a key character in the show, Tatum says the crux of the show relies on the balance between the characters and this outside commentator. The character of Basil, the girl raised as a boy, is a prime example. She/He had to be portrayed in a way so the audience could believe her/his unusual situation and thus be able and willing to follow her/him throughout the show.
“Once the audience can connect to the characters, the story becomes about relationships and everything else (skepticism, pre-conceived beliefs) fades into the background,” says Tatum.
Developing non-traditional characters like Basil and emphasizing the humanity of the relationships onstage played to the heart of the piece Tatum first fell in love with.Â From there he touched upon obvious issues in the script like gender and power to lead to the ultimate issue of personal autonomy.
“It’s not about boys vs. girls; that’s too simple. It’s not about power or really sexuality.Â They are elements but it’s about the freedom to be who you are,” he says. With a brilliant cast and crew to carry his vision, Tatum is strangely Zen as opening night approaches. “It’s been a really fun ride putting up a new company and a show.”
The fun has come from all parts of the process but two experiences Tatum has particularly enjoyed are calling the shots and working in tandem with another theatre.
“My wife and I have 30 years of theatre experience between us and it’s great not to answer to anyone else, to be able to do what we want,” says Tatum. “The normal crazy tension before a show goes up isn’t there; whatever the show is gonna be, it will be.”
Other than having the freedom of being his own boss, Tatum says collaboration with Full Circle Theatrics has been not only a strategic economic tactic but also a blessing. Alice Ensor and Joe Koonce formed Full Circle Theatrics in 2007.
“There are a whole lot of organizations trying to vie for the same audience within LA theatre,” says Tatum. “Full Circle is comprised of old friends, very like-minded and we’ve found bringing together more minds and talent means everyone is working toward the same goal and leaning on each other.”
Tatum says collaboration is one of the principle tenants of this new company. With The Girl Who Would be King and beyond, they hope to make collaboration a tradition in their tenure as an LA theatre.
Feature image: Warren Davis and Riley Rose Critchlow
Article by Greta McAnany