Most girls celebrate their 16th birthday with elaborate parties in expensive restaurants with a few hundred of their closest friends. Others, like Princess in Manhattan Children's Theater's production of Last of the Dragons, get tied to a rock, kidnapped by a dragon, and rescued by a daring prince. Written by Kristin Walter and adapted to the stage by Edith Nesbit, this whimsical tale of a young woman's rite of passage breaks storybook conventions to give us a refreshingly unique spin on arranged royal marriage, menacing dragons, and the seemingly helpless young women they prey on. Lisanne Marie plays the story's teenage heroine, Princess, with a charming mix of bubbly energy and surly tomboy competence. She is a likably spunky young girl who does everything from weightlifting to sword thrusts in preparation for her 16th-birthday sacrifice. Her overly doting Nurse (Chelsea Palano) tucks her into bed, attempting to lull her to sleep with a sock-puppet re-enactment of a dragon slaying. Princess rolls her eyes, clearly tired of hearing members of the castle discuss her possible doom with such enthusiasm. Even her father, the King (Chris Alonzo), is eagerly looking forward to the event.
To put his daughter's mind at ease, he recalls the day he slayed a dragon, slashing at its throat while the humongous beast threatened to overcome him. Princess asks, "Where was Mommy?" Shrugging, the King replies, "She was in the cave crying and wailing, of course." No one in the castle seems worried that Princess will not be saved by the Prince, except for, unfortunately, the Prince (David Demato).
Shadowed by a bumbling Valet (B.J. Thorne), he stumbles onstage in a black, ribbed shirt and stiff beige pants as if ready for a day of tennis and tea parties. Frantically studying a collection of books ranging in titles from Dragon Slaying for Dummies to Men Who Slay Dragons and the Women Who Love Them, he seems grossly unprepared for the fateful battle that awaits him.
Fortunately, Princess is handy with a sword, and in a cute twist of fate, she and the scholarly Prince discover that opposites attract. He is a genuinely nice, albeit nerdy, guy who does not mind marrying a girl who can snap him like a twig. Princess, in turn, appreciates his book smarts and amusing anecdotes about the stars. She suggests that after the townspeople close their shutters and lock their doors, he should untie her from the rock, sneak her a sword, and stand by her side while they fight the dragon together.
In a play where none of the characters are what they are expected to be, it is only fitting for the dragon (Alex Rasovar) to emerge from his cave a disheveled-looking creature in green stockings and a baggy coat adorned with colored handkerchiefs and ribbons. He does not wish to fight to the death; he merely wants to be left alone. His deep sadness is revealed in the way his face lights up when Princess tenderly refers to him as "dear." He is listless and lonely because everyone he's ever known has been slain by a prince, making him the last of the dragons.
Like any fairy tale, The Last of the Dragons contains the obligatory morals and lessons for children, but this production's greatest and most utilized strength is its sophisticated sense of humor. The story successfully executes every aspect of comedy, from visual to physical, and it's best displayed by the wisecracking King, perfectly timed jokes, and biting sarcasm. The actors have a strong, believable chemistry, especially the Nurse and Valet, who are hilarious in their portrayal of goofball sidekicks trying to pretend they do not have a life outside of their duties to Princess and the Prince, though their lovelorn looks and makeup-smeared faces would suggest otherwise.
This is a fitting fairy tale for modern times, with a strong heroine who fights her own battles, a kind prince who earns respect without having to fight for it, and a lonely dragon that would rather have a human friend than feast. The latter is sure to come as a great relief for all the young women in the village, who can now plan their 16th-birthday parties without the added worry of being eaten.