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Imagination Stage puts Bollywood twist on Twain's tale of switched roles

Alex Paling, who plays The Pauper (left), and Anjna Swaminathan, who plays The Princess, are amazed at their resemblance to each other. COURTESY PHOTO BY LAURA DICURCIOAlex Paling, who plays The Pauper (left), and Anjna Swaminathan, who plays The Princess, are amazed at their resemblance to each other. COURTESY PHOTO BY LAURA DICURCIO  What’s next at Imagination Stage? “The Princess and the Pauper.”

Wait a minute, you say. Don’t you mean “The Prince and the Pauper,” Mark Twain’s beloved novel about two boys, a royal and a commoner, who look so much alike they exchange identities – and learn that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side?

Nope. Imagination Stage’s “free adaptation” of Twain, in the words of artistic director Janet Stanford, features two female heroines.

“It has a feminist twist,” Stanford said.

What’s more, the subtitle of the play is “A Bollywood Story.”

The original story took place in Tudor-era England; in this adaptation, writer Anu Yadav sets the action in a fictional kingdom in 11th-12th century India.

“As such,” said Stanford, who is directing the production, “it contains magic and the interplay of divine forces at work” – something absent from the original novel, which has more swordplay.

There’s also a wicked Wazir – a high-ranking official – conspiring for power.

 “Yadav – an actor who once played 30 roles in a one-person play she wrote – thought it was time to make a leap to create a play she’s not in,” said Stanford. “She cleverly took a title we all know to share more about the South Asian representation here.”

Her idealistic vision of an empire ruled justly by a woman is loosely based on a 13th -century female ruler. “Anu was inspired by that,” Stanford said.

Imagination Stage commissioned the play as part of its “ongoing effort to create new works for underrepresented members of our community,” the director added. “’It gives a glimpse of the South Asian heritage in a positive light.”

The South Asian population in the D.C. area is the third largest in the country.

Imagination Stage also aims to help young people understand the culture and history of the South Asian friends and classmates they may have.

23-year-old Alexandra Palting portrays Rani the pauper, a dressmaker’s daughter who’s about 11.

A study in versatility, this season she portrayed Squeaky Fromme in Pallas Theatre’s production of “Assassins.” Next she stars in “Alice in Wonderland” at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

“The fun part about my job is getting to work on complete different things in the space of a few months,” Palting said.

In the case of the current play, part of the fun lies in researching the culture and history behind it.

“Princess” marks Palting’s Imagination Stage debut, though attending performances there was part of her childhood.

“It’s amazing that I’ve come full circle,” she said.

The South Asians in the cast and crew – such as Anjna Swaminathan, who plays Razia the princess – have served as “cultural liaisons,” Palting added.

It may be serendipity, but Palting was struck by how much she and Anjna resemble each other.

“We’re roughly the same size, have the same skin color, and similar singing voices,” she said.

Add two wigs, and a little theatrical illusion, and they could pass as twins.

Palting, who has a classical music (Western) background, did find the music in the play by Aks a little difficult to learn. So was Indian dance, an important part of the play.

The cast of seven performs multiple roles.

Imagination Stage suggests that the play is suited for children five and over. Stanford is proud the theater is bringing in thousands of Title I students to see the show.

To reach out further to the downtown community, the Bethesda-based theater has opened a new rental space in D.C.

Imagination Stage offers educational programs and theatre productions by professional actors and artists. It also commissions new works for children every year.

“The Princess and the Pauper: A Bollywood Story” runs Feb. 10 through March 18 at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. For more information and tickets, visit: www.imaginationstation.org

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