BWW Review: Sweden's LITTLE KING MATTIAS Delights Children at Kennedy Center

What if children had a voice in government? What if they even had a voice in how the budget is developed? That's the central conceit of Little King Mattias, which made its US Premiere this weekend at the Kennedy Center in its ongoing festival celebrating Nordic culture. Sweden's Backa Teater, which specializes in theatre for young audiences, puts a unique spin on Janusz Korczak's classic children's story King Matt the First and offers one of the most interesting examples of interactive theatre that I've seen in recent memory. Put succinctly, it's a delight.

Writer-Director Mattias Andersson's innovative stage adaptation considers the plight of young Mattias (a charming Ulf Ronnerstrand). His father is king of an unnamed country and when he falls ill, Mattias becomes king at the young age of eleven. He's privileged and has never interacted with the commoners outside of the castle walls so, in addition to his young age, he doesn't have much of a basis to go on to make decision that will affect the populace. The leaders in government - namely the secretaries of defense (Bahador Foladi), education (Ylva Gallon), environment (Sandra Stojiljkovic), finance (Ove Wolf), health (Goran Ragnerstam) and justice (Maria Hedborg) - deliberately try to keep Mattias out of all governmental decisions. When he unexpectedly meets a young immigrant, Felicia (a commanding Marall Nasiri), his eyes are opened and he quickly learns that life outside of the castle is not as easy as he previously thought. Further, the decisions the politicians are making on his behalf are making the situation worse rather than better. He decides to take matters into his own hands and proves that one need not be of a certain age to know what's right and what's wrong.

While this play - which uses adult actors, minimal sets and costumes (Ulla Kassius), music (Stefan Abelsson) sound (Jonas Redig), and lighting (Peter Moa) - would have likely worked if staged traditionally, it works even better as a piece that allows the children in the audience to participate in the action. It entertains just as much as it educates them on basic concepts of governance and political action. With the assistance of political consultant America Vera-Zavala and interaction consultant Johanna Larsson, Backa Teater uses Mattias' dilemma - whether to maintain the status quo the adults have established or do what's right - as a catalyst for getting children involved in political decisions that range from those that are national security-related (nuclear weapons elimination, for example) to those which are social in nature (such as the provision of health care and programs for the homeless).

When Mattias decides to take matters into his own hands, he appoints six young audience members (at my performance they ranged from maybe age seven to thirteen) as his secretaries and allows them to fire the adults that previously held those positions. This paves the way for other children in the audience to work with those 'leaders' - facilitated by Backa Teater personnel and some local DC actors - and decide how to prioritize governmental decisions and expend monetary resources on those issues that are the most important. From that point on, until the last moments of the show, the kids drive what happens in Mattias' country. It's an unexpected approach to combining entertaining theatre with civics lessons.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Little King Mattias played for four performances on March 9 and 10, 2013 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For descriptions of other offerings in the ongoing Nordic Cool festival, visit the Kennedy Center website.

Photo Courtesy of Kennedy Center.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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