Mattie Hawkinson plays two different roles in Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” which runs through June 3 at Quintessence, 7137 Germantown Ave.

by Hugh Hunter

Quintessence Theatre in Mt. Airy winds up its season with a family classic, “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain. Quintessence veteran Josh Carpenter puts on his writer/director hat. There have been many productions of the book, but his new adaptation is especially geared towards enchanting children.

Two young actresses frolic in the star child roles. Emily Dale White plays Tom Canty, a beggar boy who lives in Offal Court, while Meg Rumsey-Lasersohn plays Prince Edward. Equally bored with their lives, they meet by chance, change clothes and toy with the idea of swapping roles for a day.

The whole story spins on mistaken identity, the staple of farce comedy. The boys look so much alike that the people around them turn the swap into reality, and families attribute strange changes in their children’s behavior to madness.

Josh Carpenter cleverly plays upon the mistaken identity trope. The boys only change clothes once. But as they struggle with their new lives in 16th century London, just four actors play scores of characters who embody that world.

What follows is a parade of prankster behaviors. Mattie Hawkinson merrily splits her times between playing Tom’s crotchety grandmother and Lord St. John at royal court. Similarly, John Basiulis plays Tom’s drunken father and a venal Lord Hertford.

Steven Wright mines the comedy of Henry VIII and coaxes dignity into the role of Miles Hendon. Tai Verley wins the Grand Prix by playing 10 roles, including four different prisoners within the space of a minute.

While Carpenter’s set is spare, he makes extensive use of props (Shannon Kearns) and lighting (David Sexton) to change scene and, on occasion, mood. The Renaissance music design of Max Silverman is haunting. But the big production player is the fabulous costume creation of Summer Lee Jack that makes all this mayhem possible.

From time to time Twain’s satirical side shines through. A priest prays for his loving God to bring utter rack and ruin down on the rebellious Scots while the story set-up inherently scoffs at the idea that class confers virtue.

Young children may be less alert to thematic touches, but I suspect they are more likely to grasp the essence of this production: theater is not only fun; it is magical. I can only imagine the delight children must take in seeing just a handful of actors pop up with mock seriousness in a multitude of guises and situations.

In changing roles, the boys discover each other’s humanity. All’s well that ends well, an upended world is set aright, and the play ends by giving the children a moral drawn from “The Merchant of Venice”: “The quality of mercy is not strained…”

Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “The Prince and the Pauper” runs through June 3. Evening shows start at 7 p.m. Tickets at 215-987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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