The Princess Is Right! is a delirious concoction of quick-witted jokes, multimedia experimentation, and economic assistance
The game show is a fantastical setting. It’s a place where you can win money, a car, a treadmill, a box of harmonicas, a date, a marriage, or a live goat–yes, all taxable if over $600 in value. It’s a space that is sectioned off from the miseries of the world–but surely stewing in all its capitalist glory–where upward mobility is the name of the game. Best of all, it’s a place where calculated risks can change your life, mostly for the positive. And it’s a perfect environment for Pittsburgh’s self-proclaimed local villain Princess Jafar to skewer, recontextualize, and reinvent.
Drag artist Princess Jafar presented The Princess Is Right! as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s 9th CSA season. The evening-length performance is a wildly entertaining take on the game show format, but it also borrows heavily from late night shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman. A rotating cast of guests, prize games, and video sketches keep the flow moving swiftly, and the anything goes structure of the performance allows ample room for both humor and societal critique. Arriving after a series of finely done riffs on TV culture like an Xmas special at the Alloy Theater, a talk show at Club Cafe, and a pandemic-era Zoom-streamed Easter Eggstravaganza, The Princess Is Right! is a delirious concoction of quick-witted jokes and asides, multimedia experimentation, and economic assistance (somebody won a washer and dryer set).
The name Princess Jafar immediately sends us back in time, 30 years ago, to the world of Disney’s animated film Aladdin. Jafar is the film’s power-hungry antagonist. Based on three characters in the Aladdin story from One Thousand and One Nights aka Arabian Nights, Jafar seeks a magic lamp whose genie would be obligated to hand-deliver Jafar enough cosmic power to take over the world, ushering in a narcissistic dystopia. Self-proclaimed pop superstar Princess Jafar, who sometimes incorporates elements of the Princess Jasmine character in merch and press materials, shares Jafar’s overall goal–global domination–but seemingly has more benevolent intentions, as we’ll explore below.
The evening begins when kidmental (playing the Paul Shaffer or Kevin Eubanks or Geoff Peterson co-host/bandleader character) kicks off The Princess Is Right! theme song, interjecting in a flashy radio announcer voice, “we have games and prizes, cash and surprises, all the nice products and greenbacks, you’ll sure to be back every night.” Princess Jafar enters and immediately goes into a Late Night bit, riffing with kidmental about the recent holidays, cancel culture, and the price of beauty. There’s a mix of purposely bad jokes (a ceramicist friend making 8 figures a year) and cheeky jokes (“I can’t get these apps to work. I keep sending these guys my pics, and they keep asking for a whole pic. I mean, are they only getting half?”). Later, Princess Jafar dons a turban to riff on the Carnac the Magnificent character, reclaiming Johnny Carson’s “mystic from the East” (via Nebraska) through Princess Jafar’s Arab-American background. The bit kind of flounders (under intentionally bad jokes?), but redeems itself with a poignant rebuttal to America’s epidemic of police violence. These sections are quick-paced and benefit from good chemistry between Princess Jafar and kidmental.
From the get go, there is no fourth wall. Our host is addressing us, the audience. But there’s something else going on. Princess Jafar continuously references the script that her and kidmental are reading from. In doing this, the audience is made aware that a game show is being played, but also, that it is being performed. Without the rules necessary to run a daily game show, Princess Jafar is free to experiment.
Video works are peppered throughout the performance. A video sketch about a nanny and a child possessed by Phyllis Diller brought out the audience laughs, and rightfully so; it is hilarious. Many of the other videos are short experiments, surreal gags, and goofy parodies, along with a few advertisements. All in all, the video segments are charming and lead to a what-will-happen-next style of anticipation.
The performance is surely collaborative with guests arriving in-person and virtually via pre-edited videos. While many of the jokes and bits are the same for each performance, each night has a few surprise guests. (Our panel reviewed the Friday night performance, and video of the Thursday night performance was made available by the New Hazlett Theater.) In many cases, guest talents are limited to minimal tasks like modeling prizes. But some guests get to collaborate on segments. After helping with hat and wig changes, Bae Le Stray gets to co-host the “Bae or Stray” segment, which emulates Le Stray’s Twitch/Youtube series. In the Thursday night performance, hip hop artist Livefromthecity does a show takeover and stages a show-within-a-show dubbed “Live After Dark.” kidmental is reintroduced and the show starts over. Livefromthecity retells the ceramicist joke and the audience seems much more excited the second time around.
But even with the wealth of people walking on and off stage, this show lives or dies with Princess Jafar. She is directly responsible for the pacing and the energy level of the show, and to that end, our panel was impressed with her stamina. She completely pulls it off, stitching the different events of the performance together with an enthusiasm that pours over bouts of snark, vanity, jugular-approaching critique, and community building.
Let’s talk about the games.
It’s interesting to think of the game show as an environment that rewards years of unpaid labor. Jeopardy rewards history buffs, pop culture nerds, and those with niche interests for their lifetimes of collecting small factoids. Games like The $10,000 Pyramid prize cleverness and the ability to quickly generate a series of words that fit a category–probably not a top priority for a company’s recruiter. Riffing on The Price is Right, the Princess Jafar version rewards one’s knowledge of the relative pricing of household goods with cash and prizes. But Princess Jafar goes one step further and incorporates a physical gag. The Princess Is Right! asks a model (Lydia Kollins) to fist a number of glued-together tubes to pull out the household good price cards. (Don’t worry. We are assured that Crisco and gloves were used in accordance with the New Hazlett Theater’s fisting experts.)
Even though Princess Jafar is intent on global domination, the methods for achieving this autocratic rule seem quite positive. Some of the prizes address gaps in our society’s well-being. A washer-and-dryer set is both a classical staple of The Price Is Right! but it is also a practical tool and, over time, a cost-saving device in one’s home. The prize of a bus pass is a jab to the lack of free public transportation in Pittsburgh. And throughout the show, games result in donations to local charities, and there are pleas for audience members (with the means) to directly support artists in the city (with direct payment for artistic services or just because artists and their art make the city interesting).
But just because we’re dealing with a benevolent ruler, Princess Jafar is not immune from making a muddled point. Our panel is confused about one of the scripted (presumably based on contestant circumstance) comments–this happened at both performances that we viewed. In the pricing game, there are four products/prizes that need to be ordered from lowest price to highest. Princess Jafar (in both nights) says something along the lines of, “I’m going to give two of these prizes to somebody else, because two of them don’t make too much sense,” and later, “It’s not appropriate for you to go home with these.” The implication being that they didn’t make cultural sense for the game players. The prizes are a La Muerte candle (joked as doubling as a butt plug), a can of Money Jackpot Room Spray, and copies of the Modern Witch Tarot deck by Lisa Sterle and Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color by Lorraine Monteagut.
After the performance, our assumption is that the two Tarot-related items are the “inappropriate” prizes, at which point we have questions. A cursory scan of the authors’ websites and social media accounts did not turn up prescriptions for who can read their books. In fact, these books are found on a number of lists encouraging people to dig into the broad realm of witchcraft. We were confused on why the experiences shared in these books should be sequestered based on the game player’s presentation. Although, maybe it wasn’t the tarot deck and the book. Maybe not everyone should be communing with Our Lady of the Holy Death via a candle. The point was muddled and the vagueness of the point could lead to different interpretations, none of which seem terribly useful. Despite the comment only lasting eight seconds or so, it was a weird spot in the evening, which was not clarified in a satisfactory way in the Q&A.
Looking back at the performance video, yes, certain bits felt a little haphazard, a few jokes didn’t land, there wasn’t exactly a grand finale prize, and some of the guests were underused, but being in the audience was completely entertaining. At the end of an hour, our panel wished for another hour. We wanted to see a few more games, hear a few more jokes, and watch a few more videos. There’s a feeling of risk and experimentation in a performance like this, and it would truly be a benefit to Pittsburgh if The Princess Is Right! could be a regular event or, one could dream, a weekly TV show.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Else Collective, How Things Are Made, and Host Skull; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Kelsey Robinson is a Brooklyn-born, rustbelt-reared performance artist. She studied musical theater at Point Park University, then returned to NYC, where she collaborated on new musicals, contemporary operas, and puppet theater. As of 2017, a born-again Pittsburgher, Kelsey, has joined Bricolage Production Company in multiple immersive (DODO, the forest of everywhere, the clearing) that place empathy-elevating, improvisation over entertainment as well as participated as a Wordplay storyteller. She is both an actor and teaching artist with Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh Public Schools. As a founding member of FolkLab, she has been both an ensemble member and leader in devised company productions. Kelsey has appeared onstage with other notable companies, including Attack Theater, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater, Pittsburgh City Theater, Afro Yaqui Music Collective. She has also received the support of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater as a residency artist in their FreshWorks program and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as a member of the Community Leaders Advisory Committee.
Ariel Xiu is an artist whose works are meditations and performances on the multiplicity of human experience, the non-locatable, the interconnectivity of all things and their relationships — processed through the lens of an Asiatic lineage. She has performed in theatres including The New Hazlett and Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, DIY house venues, and art galleries (Living Gallery and Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, SPACE in Pittsburgh). She is a former resident at The Space Upstairs and scholar of the annual Pulse Laser Workshop hosted by the HoloCenter at Ohio State University.