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Published: Thursday, 4/20/2006

'The Dragon' is a fascinating, timeless tale

The final major production in the Conflict, Courage, and Compassion season of the University of Toledo's department of theater and film is Russian author Evgeny Schwarz's 1942 political satire, The Dragon.

Directed by Bulgarian Vladimir Prahcharov, a visiting assistant professor of theater, The Dragon is set somewhere in fairy-tale time. Once a year, the townsfolk must pay tribute to a dragon by giving him a maiden, who is never seen again. Maybe he eats the young women - that's certainly the assumption - but maybe he just collects them like so many tchotchkes to decorate his cave.

This year, the dragon has selected Elsa, the comely daughter of Charlemagne, the keeper of the village records. But before she can go to her fate, a stranger arrives in the village. His name is Lancelot, and his job is rescuing fair maidens.

Elsa and the villagers are aghast. They've always paid the tribute, and the dragon keeps them safe. What if Lancelot kills their dragon and a worse one shows up?

Better, they think, to keep the dragon they have rather than face the unknown.

Lancelot is smitten with Elsa and persuades her to believe in him, riling the dragon and the town's lunatic leader, the Burgmeister.

What happens then is a surprise, although maybe it shouldn't be, especially because The Dragon has a lot to say about politics, power, corruption, and embracing the status quo, all of which remain relevant 64 years after the play was written.

The UT production has been turned into a musical; Olga Rua wrote the music as her senior composition, and theater major Bill Lancz provided the lyrics. The music, for the most part, adds an element of surprise. What seems like a fairy tale becomes more ominous through the deliberately saccharine lyrics.

Unfortunately, while some of the performers have fine singing voices, others border on the painful.

Seth Shaffer, who plays Lancelot, is one of the big assets of the play. A senior, he has appeared in many productions, among them UT's Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), and he has grown into a compelling performer.

Also charismatic is the Burgmeister, played by Peter Cross, who embodies the clich "crazy like a fox."

Zachery Durnell as the cat is a delight, both for comic relief and because he acts as a sort of narrator.

Two other major characters, Nikki Soldner and Ernest Green, who play Elsa and the Burgmeister's son, aren't as comfortable in their roles, and their performances seem to be forced.

The play takes place in the Center Theatre in UT's Center for Performing Arts. In all of the other plays I've attended there, the stage is in the south quadrant of the theater, with seating on the north, east, and west. For The Dragon, the stage is in the north quadrant.

Maybe this was done for a technical purpose, but the emotional result is that of disorientation, a sort of sign that the unexpected will be the norm. Marketa Fantova's creative staging and costumes only enhance this feeling.

Though it is long (lasting 2 1/2 hours) and drags in spots, The Dragon is fascinating, both because its lack of exposure on American stages makes it seem fresh and because its theme is timeless.

"The Dragon" continues at 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Center Theatre in the University of Toledo's Center for Performing Arts. Tonight's performance will be signed. Tickets are $13 for the general public, $11 for seniors and UT employees, and $9 for UT students. Information: 419-530-2375.

- Nanciann Cherry



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