CHICAGO: When Leo Tolstoy penned War and Peace in 1869, he’d have been hard-pressed to imagine that his minor character Princess Mary would have her own show 145 years later. But after reading Tolstoy’s classic novel, playwright Aaron Holland created just that.
Holland’s riff on the Russian master’s handiwork, called Princess Mary Demands Your Attention, will open at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre on Jan. 15 as the writer’s first professionally produced work. A production of Bailiwick Chicago, it is the coming-of-age story of one Amari Bolkonski, a gay black daydreamer, and it melds Holland’s personal experiences with just a tad of Tolstoy.
“At the time I wrote the show, I was writing different piece for a contest at the Victory Gardens, working nights as a drag queen, and reading Tolstoy,” Holland recalls. “I really connected with Mary, and all of those things I was doing started working together.”
Princess Mary has been through a two-year development process, which included two table reads, a weeklong workshop and a staged reading. Though the timeline has been long, it allowed the show to find its voice, musical and otherwise, Holland believes.
The show’s director, Lili-Anne Brown, concurs. “The fact is that this is a new world that has never been onstage before,” she says. “My job is to give life to something on the page, but when you come across material like this that hasn’t had a life before, that’s totally different.”
The characters of Princess Mary are indeed unique—people you’re not likely to run into every day—and that’s why Holland wants audiences to walk out of the show with a new perspective. “I want people who see the show to identify with someone,” he offers. “I think that knowing someone like Amari can be an inspiration to them, and help them find out what is holding them back from their own dreams.”
Surely Tolstoy would approve.