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Imperfect Princess

Theatre IV's "The True Story of Pocahontas" fails to overcome history's challenge.



Flashbacks have become a ubiquitous storytelling device — as a perusal of this fall's crop of new television dramas confirms. But flash-forwards? Not so much.

Reasons for this can be found in Theatre IV's new children's show, "The True Story of Pocahontas." About a third of the way into the 70-minute production, the story switches into the future tense as Tomocomo (Kevin Crispin), the tribal psychic, foretells the decisions that Pocahontas (Erin Thomas) will have to make in her life.

It's a confusing narrative device that necessitates too much talking and not enough action, undercutting a production that features some strong performances and lovely design work.

Perhaps even more frustrating, the story doesn't provide a distinct reason for the defining moment in the Pocahontas mythology: her intervention to save the life of Captain John Smith (Russell Rowland).

We meet the Native American princess as a 12-year-old sneaking through a majestic and misty forest (thanks to the beautiful set design by Terrie Powers), just as the new colony at Jamestown is being established. A succinct account is given of the rough times for the colonists and their rocky relations with the natives. But even though Thomas makes for an eager and endearing Pocahontas, her compulsion to place her neck on the line to save Smith is never adequately explained.

The family dynamics between Pocahontas, her little sister Matachanna (Allison Thibodeau) and her father, Chief Powhatan (Andy Nagraj), are the most stirring aspect of this story, but they're given short shrift. Thibodeau projects playfulness mixed with hesitancy and Nagraj is a stern but loving leader. The score, a lively mix of contemporary and tribal-sounding tunes by Julie Fulcher, gives Nagraj the best opportunities to shine with songs that use his hearty baritone.

As Smith, Rowland also has several good moments, but his character drops out of the story well before the end, his place taken by John Rolfe (Richard Koch), who ultimately woos and weds Pocahontas. A possible reason for the show's extended flash-forward is revealed near the end as the young princess asks, "Can we have a happy ending?"

"Pocahontas" tries to impart an uplifting message, even though its heroine dies of a consumptive disease when barely out of her teens. Theatre IV has tried valiantly to overcome the challenge this poses, the cast and the design staff doing their darnedest. The result may be the "true story," but this may be one case where honesty isn't the best policy. S

"The True Story of Pocahontas" plays at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Oct. 22. Tickets are $16. For details call 344-8040.

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