Matchless, Written by Gregory Maguire, and The Happy Prince, Written by Oscar Wilde; Directed by Debra Wise. Presented by the Underground Railway Theater, Central Square Theater’s Studio Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge through January 3.
The Central Square Theater’s Studio Theater is news to me, and what a magical little space it is. Scenic Designer David Fichter has created an interesting world for this production of Matchless, paired with The Happy Prince. The stage is cluttered with all kinds of curious, old fashioned odds and ends – furniture, wooden dowels, baskets – anything you might find in your grandmother’s attic. High center stage is a large wooden chest, which serves first as a pedestal for The Happy Prince and then as a hiding place for a young boy’s secret in Matchless. The effect was one of a precious diorama, or snow globe, that encased the audience as well as the actors. It made for a very intimate and immediate theatrical experience.
Gregory Maguire cleverly weaves his back story of The Little Match Girl to fit perfectly with Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, using a fanciful, slightly addled boy Frederick (David Keohane) to link the stories together. Keohane also doubles as The Happy Prince, a sad, glittering statue who finds real happiness in giving all that he has to the poor. When in the end he loses everything - including his faithful and obedient friend the Swallow (Eliza Rose Fichter) - he is dismantled from his post and melted.
Eliza Rose Fichter’s Little Match Girl has a quicker, but no less tragic, end, despite her deceased mother embracing her from Heaven. Maguire’s reworking makes for a happier addendum, which I won’t tell you in case you see it, but it does not involve resurrection of its main character. Eliza Rose Fichter is a very compelling, grounded presence onstage, whether it be fluttering the puppet representing the Swallow or huddling with matches as The Little Match Girl. And Debra Wise is just terrific as Frederick’s Mother as well as with some ensemble work.
Despite the very beautiful and well-acted presentation of the pieces, and the suggestion of happy endings, this reviewer had to wonder who the intended audience was. Although the pace and rhetoric suggested a children’s show, I would think that the sadness of the material would be too heavy for kids (it was actually a little heavy for me). And while the message of The Happy Prince was nice – rich people should help the poor – a huge part of me was inwardly pontificating, as The Happy Prince sacrificed his eyesight to give the impoverished money, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for life.” Which I’m pretty sure was not Wilde’s intent when he wrote this fable for his children.
Matchless & The Happy Prince runs an hour and 15 minutes, with a short intermission. For more information, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/matchless/