Thursday, July 24, 2008

Kingdom comedy

Armed with pea shooters, The Fredericktowne Players take aim at a classic

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
Prince Dauntless (Garrett Smith, center).
Like most American families, the Kigins of Frederick decided to cut back on vacation time this year and stick close to home.

Unlike the majority, however, three of the brood’s ranks opted to perform in a show together.

And like even fewer — somehow, through it all, matriarch Jana Kigin was elected queen.

Anything, it seems, can happen when you’re dealing with a fractured fairytale.

The production, ‘‘Once Upon a Mattress,” opens Friday at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater, as staged by The Fredericktowne Players. Based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, ‘‘The Princess and the Pea,” the show originally debuted off-Broadway in 1959, and has since endured several adaptations, from a 1996 Broadway revival starring Sarah Jessica Parker to a televised Tracy Ullman-vehicle some 10 years later.

In addition to the Kigins — Jonny, Jana and nine-year-old Lily— The Players’ latest boasts an ensemble cast of company regulars in addition to a few new thespians.

Leading the charge are actors Apple Reese, Garret Smith, Michael J. Pellegrino, Rich Cole, Jeremy McKoon and Lindsey Gladhill, accompanied by a full court of Frederick’s theatric royalty.

As the show’s minstrel, Jonny — a FTP familiar face and one of the troupe’s most ardent spokesmen — sets the stage with a musical prologue, ‘‘Many Moons Ago.”

‘‘The exact line is: ‘There are many versions of this story,’” he recounts. ‘‘‘I sing them all. This is the prettiest. But it’s not quite accurate.’”

To put things into perspective, Jonny calls to mind many of the actresses who have portrayed the show’s heroine Princess Winifred — Ullman and Carol Burnett, among them.

‘‘So you can see — she might not be the most reverent character,” he said.

The show, he explained, surrounds a fantasy kingdom in which no one may be wed until its esteemed Prince Dauntless the Drab (Smith) marries first. The prince’s mother, Queen Aggravaine, however — ‘‘a sort of domineering, control freak,” said Jonny — will not abide her son’s betrothal, devising a series of sinister tests to weed out undesirable brides-in-waiting.

When Winifred (Reese), the kingdom’s last remaining and not-quite-demure princess comes to call, Aggravaine constructs one final challenge with the help of her wizard lackey.

The duo place a single pea underneath a tower of 20 mattresses where Winifred is sent to slumber. If she sleeps through the night, unable to detect the pea’s presence, the queen decrees, she will be declared unfit to marry Dauntless due to an utter lack of royal sensitivity.

This will be actress Jana King’s second show with The Fredericktowne Players, having last appeared as the mother in ‘‘A Christmas Story.”

‘‘It’s been a long time coming,” she said of her on-stage collaboration with husband and stepdaughter, who plays a page. ‘‘Lily’s mother has been coming to rehearsals –so it’s been like one, big family,” she said.

There’s just one, little thing — slightly bigger than a pea.

Two weeks ago, Jana was primed to play one of the show’s ladies in waiting. A week later, she was memorizing the lines of the queen. All of them.

Many, many more lines than the mother in ‘‘A Christmas Story” had, she stresses.

When the father of the production’s original queen, Debbie Rule, fell ill, the actress took a leave of absence and Jana was asked to fill in as an understudy.

‘‘It was a ‘just in case she’s not back in time, you can learn the lines’ sort of thing” said Jana, noting that she hammered out a lion’s share of the dialogue in only a weekend’s time. ‘‘She won’t be back in time, unfortunately.”

The role-reversal was an adjustment, said the actress.

‘‘It’s been a challenge,” she said. ‘‘I have two young kids at home – and there’s a new costume, new music, and new lines. It’s a challenge for my old brain.”

Still, Jana is likewise energized by the opportunity.

‘‘I’m having a great time,” she said. ‘‘It’s a really fun role for me. I tend to like small, comedic and quirky roles. I’ve never thought of myself as leading lady material, so I didn’t even think about trying out for the part of the queen. But I’ve been able to find certain things within the role ... that I think are funny. People in the audience might not think so, but I do.”

The fallout, though, is that the Kigin trio, as a result, gets less face time on stage together.

‘‘We thought we’d get to do a lot more,” said Jana. ‘‘Originally, Jonny and I were paired in the Spanish Dance. But now I dance with Rich Cole who plays the wizard, which has been a lot of fun. He has a very large costume, too, so we were trying to figure that out last night.”

As the queen, Jana’s character is, by and large, supposed to ignore pages, like the one played by Lily. ‘‘And the only time I acknowledge Jonny is when I banish him from the kingdom.”

Sounds like quite the cathartic performance. ‘‘I channel all of the negative things that have happened and just let my fury fly,” she said.

And to who is the better dancer, Cole or Jonny, Jana is initially hesitant to answer.

‘‘I plead the fifth,” she said. ‘‘No, of course I’ll say Jonny.”

Jonny can only repay the compliment.

‘‘Of course we miss Deb, and our prayers are with her,” said Jonny. ‘‘[But Jana] stepped in and did a marvelous job. I’ve been impressed.”

Spoken like a true prince.

‘Once Upona Mattress’

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Aug. 1-2; 2 p.m. Aug. 3

Where: Jack B. Kussmaul Theatre, 7932 Opossumtown Pike, Frederick

Tickets: $22 for adults, $16 for students, seniors and military with ID, $8 for children 12 and younger

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