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Goethe Institut—-Gallery

Remaining Performances: Sunday, July 14, 5:15 p.m. Saturday, July 20, 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 27th, 3:45 p.m.

They say: “La Voce to Me is a play about the original story of The Little Mermaid as it is interconnected with the gay experience throughout history – a story of love, sacrifice, death and rebirth.”

Maddie’s Take: It’s become cool for feminists to hate on The Little Mermaid. Many elements of the story can be easily read as problematic—-with Sell Your Whole Identity in Exchange for a Man being the chief offender. When I was a child, though, the Disney version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was in constant rotation in my house. I never took much of a shine to it. For me, the most powerful aspect of La Voce to Me was the way it forced me to re-examine my previous readings of the tale.

Described by actor-playwright Jeremy Pace as “poetic theater”, the show consists of four intertwining direct addresses—-from Andersen (George Anthony Tralka Jr.), Disney lyricist Howard Ashman (Brendan O’Connell), Pace, and the Little Mermaid herself (Natalie Piegari). The piece certainly is poetic in its language, a mixture of Pace’s lyric prose and found text from Andersen’s story and letters and Ashman’s songs. If it occasionally strikes a preachy chord, it’s not a dishonest one. If poetry is a translation of feeling, I definitely felt the poetic emotional impact of this story as it got going.

It’s a play about how fairy tales can transform and define us, and it’s one addressed to us young people who grew up with the 1989 animated film. Just as the darkest and most tragic parts of Andersen’s tale are excised in the Disney version, Pace presents Gen-Y with a history lesson on a time when HIV was a death sentence. Instead of feeling stodgy and static, Andersen and Ashman’s narratives were arguably the most captivating. Tralka Jr. plays Andersen as a fey, very excited, childlike nerd, who falls in painfully chaste, capital L-O-V-E love with a male friend. Whether he’s gushing and sighing, or ringing his hands to express an anger that won’t be acknowledged, Tralka Jr. conveys how overwhelming passion can be.

O’Connell portrays Ashman as an angry young man, professional but passionate. He tells us the “story of [his] swan song”, working on Disney’s The Little Mermaid and giving young gay kids a story to relate to. O’Connell speaks his lines with such sincerity and conviction that one would never question his belief that the screenplay of a children’s film could aspire to high art. A particular highlight is when Ashman is explaining, AP English style, the specific meaning behind each line in Ursula’s spell.

Piegari does great work as the suffering mermaid, a character who is constantly controlled and interpreted by others. While there is something not quite concrete about her still, Piegari manages to ground her, mostly. Wearing a hoodie and jean jacket over a lacy dress, she looks like someone you could actually meet. And Piegari’s sullen and vulnerable line delivery hits home—-as when she realizes what she must give up to get the prince, and bemoans the “legs [she] could never have.”

For the majority of the show, it’s Pace’s story that’s the weakest. The beautiful language he gives his other characters is missing from his own narrative. The best parts of La Voce to Me come when the characters question each other’s choices, allowing Pace to draw parallels between the four in creative ways. More of such scenes would give director K.W. Kuchar more to work with. Kuchar makes great choices when there’s concrete action—-the way he shows the mermaid lose her fins is outstanding; Piegari slowly pulls up the hem of her dress, a move imbued with sexuality and pain—-but there were other moments, like the transition sequences indicated by sound cues, that felt like missed opportunities.

Ultimately, the stories are linked together beautifully, and Pace does have a compelling story to tell us. It just takes a little while for it all to feel theatrically cohesive. When it did, I was glad I was there.

See it if: You love confessional theater, or Disney, and hate people like me who are always trying to nitpick your childhood role models.

Skip it if: You don’t come to the theater to hear people monologue and use heightened language. Or if you REALLY hate The Little Mermaid.