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Meredith Ensemble Theatre's spring 2017 production is Once Upon a Mattress, a comical retelling of the old fable of "The Princess and the Pea." The benevolence of the kindly old Queen who cautions the Maiden that she must be a "real" princess in this show's prologue swiftly disappears as we learn that Queen Aggravain has decreed that no one in the queendom may wed until her son, Prince Dauntless, finds a bride. The Queen then aggravates the situation by "testing" each applicant for the position, and seeing to it that none of them pass.
The wicked old Queen was played imperiously by Sarah Koop, sporting a long, regal cape that flowed out behind her as she walked, the result being that she didn't so much enter a scene as she swooped into it. Playing her lecherous old hubby is James Poslusny as King Sextimus the Silent, who doesn't speak. Prince Dauntless is played by Cody Hill, who must be sure to kowtow to his mother as she "tests" each of his possible brides out the door.
This is the state of affairs until one of the knights, Sir Harry (Tyler Graeper), decides to go out and bring home a princess from some other realm. Harry's in a hurry to get married because his bride-to-be, Lady Larken (Caroline Carter), is already expecting. He brings back a young woman who is so eager to meet "her prince" that she can't wait for the drawbridge and swims the moat. This upsets the queen as being highly un-princess-like, but Dauntless is taken with the new girl, so she is shown around the palace while Queen Aggravain and her wizard (Elena Mulligan) think furiously on how to thwart this moat-swimming princess.
Director Catherine B. Rodgers sets the entirety on the Jones Auditorium proscenium stage, and puts the orchestra, naturally, between the stage and the audience. While this does give us an excellent chance to watch the orchestra in action, it also – because there is no "pit" – makes the orchestra excessively loud. The end result of this was that while the actors were singing with gusto on stage, we could not hear them. This was something that decidedly did not happen in Meredith's fall 2016 production, Merrily We Roll Along, because the actors for that performance were miked. These folks, unfortunately, were not. Every single song, many of which move the plot along, were maddeningly overridden by the orchestra. I was fortunate in this regard in that I know the script almost by heart and could supply the missing lyrics in order to follow what was going on, but I fear most of the audience was dreadfully at sea.
One aspect of the show that really got my attention was the costumes, which were designed and executed by Becky Bailey. I loved the extreme cape that the Queen sported, and the crowns for all the regals were nicely done. Especially rad was the turquoise uniform that Dauntless wore, which made him even more ineffectual when trying to outmaneuver his overbearing Mom. Fred's “soaking” gown as she emerged from the moat was nicely done, and the Wizard had on the requisite hat and robes in beautiful royal blue. Kudos to the costume shop for a nicely-Medieval, well-executed array of regal finery.
Knowing the show so well made it clear to me that it had been drastically cut in order to make it fleet enough to run without an intermission. Thus, several scenes that were essential to building the characters of these folks were missing, such as the very hilarious and touching scene between Dauntless and the King, wherein the King tries to teach Dauntless about the birds and the bees. Another was to be sung, and danced, by the Jester, an old hand at soft shoe, taught to him by his father "when he played the Palace." Gone. What results, then, from all these various missteps is that Mattress becomes terribly two-dimensional, without the necessary fleshing-out of the characters that is essential to our caring about them.
This brings me to another inexplicable point: there was much made of a hand-drawn curtain being pulled across the stage in order to keep from having to strike the set of the throne-room each time. This halved the stage, which is a lovely and large one, and made all the characters assemble on stage in a straight line. Dull. A lot of the staging was bunched up stage left, seemingly wedged into the corner so that anyone who needed to exit stage left had to go downstage first, cross in front of the scene, and then double back and off. Unnecessary.
I fear too much nuance was dropped in the need for speed. Everything seemed rushed, even the scene ("Sensitivity") that could have been wonderful for the Queen and her lovesick Wizard. The crux of this song is that the Queen teases the Wizard with flattery while she keeps him at arm's length. Two things kept this from fruition: first, Elena Mulligan did not play the Wizard as a man, so that aspect disappeared completely; and second, there were many, many chances at real nuance by the Queen that were totally ignored, so that the song's punch line, "You are divine, get out!" fell absolutely flat.
There is a real question here as to what happened between last semester and this, that reduced this play to such a speed-test, while Merrily was so adroitly staged. Suffice it to say that this show, with its need for speed at the detriment of character, and the fact that these actors were not miked, and therefore unintelligible, really ruined a very clever play and left us no chance to care for their characters. Unless these problems are cleared up, I fear that there will only be small audiences for this show.