NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: When I was in the 6th grade, my class put on this play. It was an amalgamation of "The Emperor and the Nightingale" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" and it was written by our bible teacher presumably over several glasses of wine... Because it was a WEIRD play. Granted, he had to write something that accommodated parts for 30 children, but still. I stumbled upon the cringe-worthy VHS and thought it would be fun to re-imagine the story with slightly more humorous and adult tones. So there you go!


ACT 1

Narrator:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a kingdom surrounded by a mysterious enchanted forest. In the center of that forest, in a sunny clearing, was the mortal world where humans went about their lives in a bustling empire. And at the center of this metropolis was an Emperor.

(Enter the Emperor.)

(He's a young man with sandy blonde hair and kind eyes. He's handsome, but he looks sad. The spotlight on him fades as the scenery lights up.)

Narrator:

The Emperor was married to the Empress, who was unequivocally the most beautiful woman in the kingdom twenty years running— according to the latest imperial polls. She knew this because she checked them daily.

(The Empress sits among the royal courtyard at a marble table surrounded by pink roses. It is about 11am in the morning. Her long blonde hair spills like satin over her chair, almost touching the pristine stone ground.)

A dark-haired woman with a slim nose and purple satin head wrap approaches:

Your paper, your highness.

(She curtsies, handing the Empress a glossy magazine pre-folded to page six, where the top 10 most elegant ladies in the kingdom are listed. The Empress occupies all 10 slots.)

Empress:

Thank you, Ophelia.

(A dark-haired man with a shiny mustache and padded gold tassels on his shoulders approaches)

Alphonse:

Your bagel with low-fat cream cheese, your highness.

(He bows, keeping his head at table level while sliding the plate toward her)

Empress:

Thank you, Alphonse.

Narrator:

Those are the Empress' two most trusted advisors.
They rarely leave her side.

Ophelia:

Did you sleep well, your highness?

Alphonse:

Did you sleep at all?

Ophelia:

(Elbows her counterpart)

Empress:

(Massaging her temples)

No. This is the third party this week. I'm going mad I tell you, mad!

Alphonse:

And the staff is going deaf.

Ophelia:

(Elbows him harder this time)

The Emperor's spontaneous parties are becoming increasingly frequent.

(Royal custodians sweep the garden in the distance, kicking up gold-colored confetti and picking hundreds of streamers out of the fountain. At the other side of the courtyard, a butler gently shakes the DJ awake, who is slumped over his turntable.)

Empress:

(Pinches between her eyes)

I'm aware. I just don't know what's wrong with that husband of mine. Every day that goes by he seems more…

Ophelia:

Displeased?

Alphonse:

Disaffected?

Ophelia:

Distraught?

Alphonse:

Dissatisfied?

Empress:

Dumb.

Ophelia:

(Covers her lips with a handkerchief)

Empress:

He is a shallow fool who has no idea how to rule a kingdom. He has no aspirations of conquest. No dreams of expansion. All he's interested in is wasting time playing with his toys.

Alphonse:

He does have quite the menagerie of belongings.

Ophelia:

Two hundred white albino elephants. Three hundred peacocks genetically bred to sport rainbow plumage. Sixty performing German Shepherds that can backflip on command. Seven dolphins that can perform complex algebra. Forty pink and purple llamas whose wool smells like cotton candy. And two cats that come when called.

Alphonse:

Let's not forget the sixty pastry chefs who bake exclusively with gold leaf. Or the two-hundred on-site acrobats who are on-call to perform at a moment's notice. Six scientists who concoct various inventions in the underground lab, my favorite of which being the levitating bubble. And let's not forget his indefinite employment of DJ Sparkcraft.

(Alphonse eyes an unconscious DJ Sparkcraft being carried away by several butlers)

Empress:

I know.

Ophelia:

What about the hundred-acre lot of gold-plated tennis courts? Or the infinity pool filled with champagne and its counterpart, the chocolate fondue hot tub? I believe he's only watched a movie in the four-hundred seat theatre but once and he enjoyed the zero-gravity ballroom for about a week until he decided he fancied the trampoline concert hall more.

Empress:

I know.

Alphonse:

And of course, there's the festivals. The sudden proclamation of cupcake day was among my favorites, as well as the mandatory week of dance. The sports festival was rather enjoyable, as was the month-long award ceremony and parade that followed. He never misses a staff birthday or anniversary regardless of their standing in the court. I was especially fond of the eight-hundred-piece orchestra that performed at the stable boy's sweet sixteen.

Empress:

I KNOW!

(Birds erupt and fly away from the trees.)

(She collapses back into her chair, rubbing her temples)

It doesn't matter what we do, he'll never be happy.
My husband is broken.

Ophelia:

He's distressed.

Empress:

He's dim.

(The Emperor suddenly appears behind the rose bush)

Emperor:

Wassat? Is that French toast?

Empress:

DARLING! You startled me.

Alphonse:

How long have you been standing there my liege?

Emperor:

I dunno.

(Shuffles over and forks a piece of toast, sticking the whole thing in his mouth without bothering to sit.)

Ophelia:

Your majesty, we were just discussing the success of last night's party. I do say, it was your most spectacular soiree yet.

Alphonse:

A real rager. The whole of the court is buzzing about it.

(Distantly, exhausted people strewn among the bushes and slumped over statues give a thumbs up and groan.)

Emperor:

(With a far off look on his face, the Emperor collapses into his chair.)

Good. I'm glad they had a good time.

(His eyes begin to well with tears)

Because I feel positively dreadful.

Empress:

Darling, don't cry in the syrup.

Ophelia:

What's wrong, your highness?

Emperor:

I had such fun last night. A happiness the likes of which I've never felt before. When that music plays and I'm surrounded by all of my friends, I feel bright as the sun. But this morning, as soon as I opened my eyes, I felt it again. This weight in my chest. An awful pang in my heart. An all-consuming darkness no mortal man can escape.

Empress:

Pass the butter.

Alphonse:

Would his highness like a royal Xanax?

Ophelia:

Or how about a trip to the royal sauna building? Perhaps a five-hour long diamond massage?

Emperor:

No. Leave me be.

(He stands up to leave, head bowed.)

(The Emperor returns moments later to take his plate of French toast and sulk into the palace.)

Empress:

You see? He's an idiot.

Ophelia:

He is certainly in a funk.

Empress:

And unless we find something that truly makes him happy, my bird-brained husband is going to continue to make my life difficult.

Alphonse:

(With a twist of his mustache and a gleam in his eye)

Your highness, I believe you just gave me an idea.

Empress:

What is it?

Alphonse:

It is a prize quite dangerous to acquire. Finding it would be treacherous. Trapping it is unheard of. To even lay eyes on it is considered blasphemous.

Ophelia:

Spit it out already!

Alphonse:

It's a bird.

Empress:

He has thousands of birds.

Alphonse:

It is a magical Nightingale whose song can heal wounds of the spirit and the flesh. It is the guardian of the forest. The goddess of the night. A creature of the moon whose power is insurmountable. One of a kind. Possibly our only hope of healing his heart.

Empress:

(Considers this)

A magical bird that heals hearts, you say?

(Ophelia and Alphonse stare.

The people in the bushes and sculptures stare.)

Empress:

Well alright, it's worth a try. How does one find this mythic beast?

Alphonse:

We must go into the enchanted forest at midnight. That is when they say it appears. But only in the presence of the pure-hearted.

Ophelia:

The pure-hearted? What does that mean?

Alphonse:

You know. Like a soul untouched by malice or greed. A kind spirit with a calm aura. A beautiful person too good for this world.

Empress:

(Stands up)

Say no more, Alphonse. I'll leave at once and you two are coming with me. My beautiful soul will lure the god beast into our clutches. And then I'll finally be rid of my useless husband's accursed melancholy. Ah ha ha ha!

Ophelia and Alphonse:

Marvelous idea, your highness!

Empress:

I know, right?


THAT NIGHT:


Narrator:

The deeper they tread into the enchanted forest, the more magical it became. The sky faded darker. The stars shone brighter. Every leaf and dewy surface seemed to give off an iridescent purple glow. The Empress, Ophelia, Alphonse, and two enormous guards marched through the ethereal wood.

Empress:

(Stomps through the mud in her thigh-high boots and fashionable cape)

Helloooo? Magical bird beast! Show yourself!

Ophelia:

Your Majesty, perhaps if you didn't shout.

Alphonse:

The legends say the Nightingale appears in the same spot every night at midnight. If only we knew where.

Empress:

Well you're the brains behind this expedition. You should have mentioned that before we left.

Alphonse:

I assumed your majesty's pure heart would chart our course.

Empress:

Don't get smart with me, Al.

Ophelia:

What if we used a bird call?

Awoooo! Awooooooooo!

Alphonse:

What if we consulted the stars? I'm sure there's a scientific trajectory to its location.

Empress:

What if we set a trap?

(A hooded stranger appears from the brush. He smells like the trees and speaks in a gruff voice.)

The Hooded Stranger:

What if you left?

(The trio gasps and steps back. The two stone-faced guards ready their weapons. They are so stone-faced, their complexion actually looks gray.)

The Empress:

Who are you? Show yourself!

The Hooded Stranger:

(lowers the hood of his cloak to reveal a man about the Emperor's age with brown hair, green eyes, and a beard that has leaves in it)

My name is Richard, and I live in this forest.

Ophelia:

(Fans her nose)

Clearly.

Alphonse:

Richard… I know you! You're that woodsman that delivers our shipments of exotic animals. You're an expert hunter and trapper. What luck!

Richard:

You should leave this place. Mortals never come this deep into the forest. It's not safe here.

Empress:

We're not leaving without a magical bird whose song heals hearts. Have you heard of it? This nightingale?

Richard:

You're looking for the nightingale? What on earth for?

Empress:

To get my buffoon of a husband out of my hair.

Ophelia:

(Speaks quickly)

His royal majesty is terribly heartsick, kind woodsman. He doesn't sleep. He barely eats. All of the joy and color has left his life. We fear for his health and safety you see. We hope that the power of this magical bird can heal him so that he might lead our kingdom to prosperity.

(winks at Alphonse, who smirks back)

Richard:

(Ponders this)

The Emperor is a foolish man. Childlike and greedy. But he is also kind. I knew him once, when we were children. We played together when the royal family would summer on the edge of the woods. He greets me warmly whenever I enter the palace, even if I'm not sure he remembers who I am.

Alphonse:

I am sure that if you helped us in our quest to bring him relief, the Emperor would be eternally grateful.

Ophelia:

Please kind sir, he is very sick.

Empress:

(Mumbles)

Sick in the head.

Alphonse:

Please?

Richard:

(Sighs)

Alright. I'll take you to where the Nightingale appears. But I cannot guarantee it will agree to help you. The gods of this forest don't like humans.

Narrator:

They walked for hours, deeper still into the forest where ominous paw prints loomed in the dirt. Mirror-eyed deer stared back at them with branches of cherry blossoms sprouted from their antlers. Glowing insects the likes of which they had never seen floated about the scenery. Eventually, they came upon a moonlit clearing. In the clearing was a small, still mirror pond and star-leafed tree. Here, Richard held out his hand and told them to stay hidden.

Richard:

(Checks his watch)

It's almost midnight.

Alphonse:

Is it a large bird, or…?

Empress:

There!

(She points excitedly toward a family of elk grazing at the water's edge)

Ophelia:

Radiant!

Alphonse:

Truly a spectacle.

Richard:

Are… are you guys on something? Those are elk.

Ophelia:

Over there!

(She points excitedly at something that looks like a cross between an owl and a cat)

Empress:

Good heavens, the Nightingale appears!

Alphonse:

It's glorious!

Richard:

Are you just messing with me, or—?

Alphonse:

There. Look!

Narrator:

Fluttering from the treetops came a bird with snow white wings and a long silken tail. It was smaller than they thought. Not a beast at all, but an elegant creature of the night. Darkness seemed to have no effect on it. Its feathers shone like moonlight upon the glittering pond.

Richard:

That's it. That's the nightingale.

Empress:

That's it? That's the god of the forest? Give me a break.

Richard:

Seriously? A second ago you were singing praises over an owlcat.

Empress:

A second ago I couldn't feel my face.

Richard:

(Rolls his eyes in exasperation)

I knew it.

Empress:

Don't judge me. The forest is boring.

(They are interrupted when the Nightingale begins to sing. It's a sweet song. Pleasant to the ears. But the longer it sings, the more a warmth begins to swell in their chests. The forest seems to pulse a little lighter. The moonlight beams ever brighter, and every living creature stops to listen.)

(The four hidden humans are rendered speechless, each with tears in their eyes. Even the two guards beside them, who are looking suddenly rather metallic, let slip a few stray tears of motor oil.)

(When the bird's song is over, the forest is left quaking with joy.)

Richard:

(Sniffling and wiping his eyes)

You see? The nightingale's magic is real.

Empress:

It's amazing. My heart feels so light.

Ophelia:

I feel like I just hugged my Mom.

I feel like I actually love my Mom.

Alphonse:

It's everything I dreamed of and more.

Richard:

We must approach it slowly and respectfully. Bow your heads and beg the forest god to save the life of the Emperor. She is temperamental, so—.

Alphonse:

(Claps Richard on the shoulder)

Good work, woodsman. You're an excellent guide and I love you, as I love all beings in the universe in the afterglow of hearing that magical song.

Richard:

Um, thanks.

Alphonse:

(Unceremoniously punches Richard, knocking him out.)

GET THE BIRD!

(The guards, who by now are quite obviously robots, stand and ready their bows and arrows. The arrows are unusual, twinkling solid gold. And they let them fly just as the Nightingale starts to take flight.)

(Moments later, the white bird is down, disappeared behind the brush. The Empress and her advisors spring to their feet.)

Empress:

Alphonse, what have you done? The Nightingale is no good to us dead!

Alphonse:

It's not dead, look.

(He pulls back the tall grass where the Nightingale fell, revealing none other than a woman lying unconscious with a golden arrow in her shoulder blade.)

Ophelia:

(Gasps)

Alphonse:

Being speared with gold forces magical beings to take human form. This way she cannot be tracked by her husband, the Raven.

Empress:

Birds can get married?

Alphonse:

God birds can. And believe me, the Raven will not take kindly to us borrowing his dear wife. Best to take her like this.

Guards! Cease them both.

Empress:

Come! Let us return to the palace before these uppers turn into downers.

Narrator:

And so they left, cackling wildly into the forest where humans are forbidden.

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Stay tuned for Act 2...