One of the more pleasant hallmarks of Lexington Children's Theatre, and there are many, is its commitment to the professional development of its staff.
In the theater, that does not mean training on how to use mail-merge in Word 2010, but, say, adapting an original script from an African folk tale, which is what associate artistic director Jeremy Kisling has done for LCT's latest production, The Princess Who Lost Her Hair.
Kisling's elegant and quick-moving script is based on the book of the same title by Tololwa Mallel, and like many African folk tales, it's full of clever sayings, morals and imaginative ways of instructing audiences on how to be a better person.
Set in the African valley below Mount Kenya, home to the Akamba people, the production is full of simple, evocative mythology and storytelling elements that somehow fit complex moral teachings into less than 45 minutes.
The tale revolves around Kalendi, the Akamba princess whose beautiful hair is the symbol of prosperity to her people. When she offends a god in disguise by refusing to lend a strand or two to line a bird's nest, a great drought descends on the valley and vain Kalendi's hair falls out. Eschewing the help of a kind and generous beggar, Muoma, the princess must have a change of heart and attitude to prevent her people's starvation.
Octavia Biggs' direction hits the right notes, and Vanessa Janson's sepia, amber and gold lighting design and Eric Abele's richly textured costuming combine to create the feeling of a lush African valley. The unity between technical and artistic elements of the show create a sense of Africa's geographic and cultural vastness, a step beyond other shows that are simply "inspired by" another culture.
While portraying key members of the Akamba society, all of whom either learn or teach valuable lessons about kindness and helping others, the four-person cast gets a chance to add to their professional skills by weaving elements of African drumming, dance and language into their performances.
The language is the only area where the production suffered a hiccup. A striking element of the show is its inclusion of many Akamba words and phrases, woven into the dialogue along with African-accented English words. This is a strength of the material, but the cast's clipping pace sometimes works against them in its delivery, despite their professional elocution. Sometimes the African and English words go together so quickly, it is hard to understand. Dialing down the pacing just a hair would rectify this without compromising momentum.
Perhaps most impressive about this tale is that its morals are not necessarily ones you'd expect. Yes, being kind to others is universal, but what about the princess' apology for not relying on others for help? Or the insight that when a person acts selfish or vain, it is often because of some deeper cause that needs to be understood?