Within the deceptively witty and erudite interaction of the aristocrats and commoners who inhabit this captivating re-working of “The Ugly Duckling,” the great Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar (1878-1952) has instilled a poignant yet profound summation of the final overthrow of an elegant but tradition-enslaved royalty by the more spiritually and intellectually supple bourgeoisie that would eventually rule the 20th century. Director Howard Shangraw, aided by Benjamin Glazer’s fluid English adaptation, creates an exquisitely delicate modern fairy tale that glides effortlessly forward on the hauntingly beautiful and cryptic portrayal of Shiva Rose as Princess Alexandra (the swan).
The production is set at the end of the 19th century in one of those minor principalities whose viability was swept away decades earlier by the relentless onslaught of Napoleon Bonaparte. “The Swan” follows the comically maniacal efforts of formidable Princess Beatrice (Marilyn Fox) and her hilariously ditzy spinster sister Princess Symphorosa (Susan Dexter) to marry Beatrice’s daughter Alexandra off to Prince Albert (Robert Lee Jacobs), one of the last of a rapidly dwindling list of available monarchs left in Europe. Casting a wizened eye on the proceedings is Alexandra’s uncle, the aristocrat-turned-clergyman, Father Hyacinth, played to the effusive hilt by Orson Bean (“Being John Malkovich”).
Shangraw expertly balances the often silly, farcical machinations of Beatrice and Symphorosa with the tangibly intense emergence of tutor Dr. Hans Agi (Alexander Enberg) as a powerful force within Alexandra’s psyche. To the director’s credit, the sense of storybook wonder never diminishes even as Molnar’s sobering reality is revealed: that for all their pomp and finery, the aristocrats are all merely flightless ducks in a row and the only one capable of evolving into a true “swan” is the tutor.
As Princess Alexandra is buffeted between her desire to win the prize that is Prince Albert and the passions that have been unleashed within her by the tutor, there is a palpable sadness that never leaves the breathtaking perfection that is Rose’s face. Within her countenance is the personification of an irrelevant royalty that exudes an awe-inspiring physical presence but whose soul has been swaddled by centuries of tradition-bound spiritual and emotional deprivation.
Perfectly complimenting Rose’s Alexandra are Enberg as the formerly humble tutor who is just beginning to discover his own power and worth, and Jacob’s outing as Albert, whose thoroughly pompous exterior belies a sensitive and needy soul. Also lending solid support are William Lithgow as the monumentally obliging butler, Cesar, and Diane Hurley as Prince Albert’s superlatively imperious mother, Princess Maria Domenica.
The production designs of Victoria Profitt (set), Audrey Eisner (costumes) and Keith Endo (lighting) do much to enhance the aura of this finely wrought tale.