URT’s ‘Prince’ and ‘Matchless’ offer holiday lessons

Debra Wise, David Keohane, Eliza Rose Fichter & Alan White in "The Happy Prince. "  A.R. Sinclair Photography.

Debra Wise, David Keohane, Eliza Rose Fichter & Alan White in “The Happy Prince. ”  A.R. Sinclair Photography/Central Square Theater.

CAMBRIDGE – Storytelling is a major part of the holiday experience, and often the stories become a tradition handed down over time, with the same stories repeated each Christmas.

For my children, it was Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express,” lovingly read each Christmas Eve, and an audio tape of the book narrated by William Hurt was well-worn.

The storytellers from the Underground Railway Theatre and the Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater are busy this holiday season, for the fifth straight season performing an acclaimed production of “Arabian Nights,” a series of stories enchantingly presented with spectacular design elements led by David Fichter’s scenic and puppetry design.

This year the URT has added two one-act plays to the mix: “The Happy Prince,” based on a story Oscar Wilde once told to his children, and Gregory Maguire’s “Matchless,” and they both shine with the same imagination and creativity and theatrical magic that has made “Arabian Nights’ a mainstay for the past five years.

Puppetry is something the URT has excelled at in the past in productions such as “Sila,” with its magnificent polar bear.

It’s no surprise, then, that Fichter has done standout scenic and puppetry design and painting for both of the one-act pieces and both are directed by the sure hand of URT Artistic Director Debra Wise, whose portrayal of Sook in Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” in 2009 still resonates.

Wise is part of a four-person company – along with Eliza Rose Fichter, David Keohane and Alan White – that uses everyday objects to bring the characters of “The Happy Prince” to life and then portray the two families at the heart of “Matchless.”

David Fichter has created an entire city for “The Happy Prince” out of common everyday objects, some of which also become townspeople; there is shadow puppetry and evocative lighting that also help transforms the collection of objects into a time and place.

The happy prince is not actually a prince at all, but the statue of a long-dead prince (played by Keohane) that looks down forlornly on what is going on around it. The prince befriends a swallow (Eliza Rose Fichter) that is the conduit that allows the prince to use everything that makes him special – two sapphire eyes and the fine gold leaf that coats him – to alleviate the suffering of all those around him.

The swallow should have long since fled the cold of the city to join other swallows in a warm refuge, but it stays to aid the prince in his selfless mission until it is too late to escape.

The selflessness and generosity of both ultimately prove rewarding – the point of the piece.

Maguire, whose imagination turned “Wicked” into a best-seller that later became an iconic Broadway hit, has reinvented the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Match Girl” in his “Matchless.”

“On an island so far north that it snowed from September to April, a boy named Frederick kept himself warm by keeping a secret” is the way Maguire introduces his story.

Frederick was an urchin who stole one of the Match Girl’s shoes in Andersen’s tale and here he is part of a family that lives above a smokehouse in a coastal town, just across the water from a thriving seaport. He forages scraps of fish to feed himself and his mother (Wise), who serves as a seamstress to a very demanding queen, but the family cannot always afford even a match to keep the fire going.

Frederick comes upon a shoe the Match Girl lost in an accident and it ends up serving as a vessel of sorts for the spool people world Frederick has created for himself.

The Match Girl (Eliza Rose Fichter) is still mourning her mother on a cold Christmas Eve when she is scared to go to the home she shares with her father and two sisters because she hasn’t sold a match. As she grows colder, the few matches she lights in the desperate darkness bring images of her late mother closer to her but cannot forestall the inevitable.

Later, a storm will rage and, Frederick will have trouble finding his way back home on the causeway from the mainland. He will find his way, aided by those same tiny flickers of light that the Match Girl once used to find her mother in the dark.

In Maguire’s take, there is a melding of families in the wake of the Match Girl’s death after Frederick discovers in the shoe a key. In that way, The Little Match Girl’s flame still burns bright in the way she helps to ultimately bring the families together.

Both “The Happy Prince” and “Matchless” are stories well told, artfully displayed, with winning messages for us during the holiday season. Hopefully, we take the time to hear and consider them.

The Underground Railway Theatre productions of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” and Gregory Maguire’s “Matchless.” Directed by Debra Wise.cenic and puppetry design and painting by davbid Fichter . Assistant designer and puppet master Will Cabell. Assistant director/puppet design Penny Benson. Costume design by Miranda Kau Giorleo. Lighting design by John R. Malinowski. At the Central Square Theatre through Jan. 3. centralsquaretheater.org.

Eliza Rose Fichter and David Keohane in “Matchless.” (Courtesy A.R. Sinclair Photography/Central Square Theater)

Eliza Rose Fichter and David Keohane in “Matchless.” (Courtesy A.R. Sinclair Photography/Central Square Theater)