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November 24, 2005

Stage Matters

The Princess and the Saint


photo of the cast of Once Upon a MattressFor a musical comedy with no memorable songs, Once Upon A Mattress shows remarkable endurance, especially during the Christmas season. This rendition of the Princess and the Pea fable is performed all over North America, from high school productions to professional theaters. Its third television production will air in December, starring Tracey Ullman and featuring Carol Burnett, whose first major performance was as the star of the original 1959 Broadway show.


So why has it lasted? If the current production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre I saw in preview last week is any indication, possibly because it's a lot of fun. I'm no expert on musicals, but even for a late '50s show it seems a throwback to the 1940s, with its emphasis on comedy, nostalgia for vaudeville and above all (despite some mild double entendres) its sweetness.

The NCRT production is well mounted, with pleasing sets, costumes and lighting. Except for a dubious overture and some awkwardness at the end, director Dianne Zueger keeps the show flowing.

The music is pleasant, the actors all exude charm, and they're committed to their roles but don't try to do too much. As the aggravatingly vain Queen Aggravain, Xande Zubin-Meyer channels Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), and Steve Carter is a taller Harpo Marx as King Sextimus. Vince Farrar strikes the right poses but also humanizes the ironic Lancelot role of Sir Studley. Jordan Matteoli is well cast as the eager but innocent Prince Dauntless, Miles Raymer's stage presence and strong tenor anchors the action as the minstrel and Laura Hathaway has an affecting presence and attractive voice as Lady Larken.

But this show belongs to Mindy Willens as Princess Winifred, who owns the stage from the moment she enters. Known as "'Fred," this Princess has a sweetly energetic assertiveness: She storms the castle by impulsively swimming the moat, and then is modestly embarrassed about it. With bright rolling eyes and a big voice, Willens grabs the audience and brings them cheerfully into the show. Her characterization has a kind of natural innocence that the more brazen Burnett and Ullman are unlikely to bring. This crowd-pleasing, child-friendly romp continues in Eureka through Dec. 17.

If the Princess wins the hearts of a kingdom by being herself, such integrity in action was shown to risk less favorable reaction in the Young Actors' Guild production of Antigone and Joan at HSU's Van Duzer Theater Nov. 17 to 22.

Together with teacher and director Jean Bazemore, juniors and seniors of the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy at the Big Lagoon Charter High School edited George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan and combined it with a condensed Antigone by Sophocles. Both plays center on a young woman -- about the age of these students -- who acts from conviction but pays a heavy price.

The same bare stage of small black steps served both stories, graced with designer Jerry Beck's iconic wisps of fabric. The show begins and ends with a haunting song, composed by student Autumn McIlraith. Gossamer white-gowned dancers guide the transitions.

Shaw's play is a characteristically witty verbal deconstruction of the arc of Joan of Arc's life. Shaw interprets her "voices" as intuition or practical imagination, an upsetting threat to institutional tyranny.

Joan's story pauses, as a temple column floats ominously down and Antigone begins. Bazemore's staging and the authority of the actors complete the separation. Even in this brief treatment, Antigone is mesmerizing. Here a young woman defies the king to obey the higher power of tradition and the gods to honor her brother with ritual burial. Though her fate is tragic, the intractable king brings down the state. "All men make mistakes," Sophocles writes, "but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride."

Joan's story is concluded with her trial and its aftermath. This is Shaw at his most incisive and richly ironic, but these young people also found an emotional pivot in the cleric who vociferously condemns Joan but is transformed by the overpowering shock of actually seeing her burn.

Joan appears finally in a dream to learn of her canonization as a saint and to hear the praise of all who condemned her. But when she offers to come back to life they speedily refuse, with chagrin.

This production emphasized the emotional purity and steadfastness of its heroines, finding in their examples a measure of hope. As their song asserts, "The dreamers are awakening/You're no longer alone."

The cast combined experienced students with those claiming their space on stage for the first time. Main roles were alternated from night to night, and several male parts were played by young women, with skill and conviction. Jean Bazemore performed another minor miracle in assembling this production in three weeks and mounting it on the stage where, a couple of decades ago, she directed her first play for her doctoral dissertation.

These students clearly benefit from an arts program that combines creativity, scholarship and discipline with nurturing support and communal attitude. This experience will remain with them for life. But the outside community benefits as well, to see these young talents and their focused vitality, bringing to life interpretations of deeply probing drama that can still spark in our hearts and minds fresh revelations of the individual and the common soul. l



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