In a contemporary presentation of this popular musical, Once Upon a Time becomes not so long ago or very far away as the story of the 'Princess and the Pea' unfolds into a sharp and funny satire that questions who gets to define true love. The Animus Ensemble blends classic musical theatre, sexual politics, and the affairs of modern Boston to create an entertaining and original performance.That's the blurb from the BostonTheatreScene page for the Animus production of Once Upon a Mattress. I'd never heard of the show or the company. Friday's Metro had a review of it titled "Queen for a Gay" and I only half-read the article (I'm wary of getting spoiled by reviews) but given that article title, I was expecting the premise to be something like, "Actually the prince is gay," but from the very beginning Dauntless is very interested in getting to marry a princess. When Sir Harry goes off to find a princess, however, Dauntless is so glad that he kisses him and it's played great, with neither of them really knowing what to do after that, and Dauntless finally giving him this friendly man punch and then swaggering away.
So, Swamp Princess shows up, and I rather wonder if they stuffed the actor's shorts. The Princess is wearing a purple t-shirt and snug black shorts and has a "That's not my leg" line while being carried by the knights. The chorus keeps referring to the Princess as "she"/"her" very deliberately as if they are in on a joke but very much want to keep up the charade (because if the Queen okays this Princess' marriage to Dauntless then everyone else in the kingdom is allowed to get married).
The Princess is v. campy (and downing colored martini glasses like nobody's business) and the Knights are totally made uncomfortable by her flirting with them, touching them, whatever. When the Princess is being offered new clothes while her moat-soaked-garments dry she sends everyone out (like she doesn't want anyone to see her undress) and is disgusted by the dresses and shows up at the dance in a pink button-down shirt, white pants with black speckles, and purple spats. She showed up wearing a bathing cap and shows up at the dance in a pink wig. She takes off her wig to reveal v. short blond hair (frosted tips possibly) and tells Dauntless she wants to be called "Fred" (her given name is "Winnifred the Woebegone") and when he's all thrilled she totally has this look like, "You didn't let me finish; there's one more thing you need to know about me."
While this is happening, there's the side plot of the trio of the Minstrel, the Jester, and the silenced King. The Jester and Minstrel are played by women, and they totally have this chemistry going on (and dance together at the ball, the only non-hetero pairing there). When they're first trying to convince Larken to let them help, the Minstrel's hand(s) totally end up on her and later the Minstrel is totally doing this "check-me-out" thing. When Harry finds out he's all "What were you doing with this man?" and we realize that the Minstrel is in fact a male. Later, the Jester is referred to with male pronouns as well, so their relationship goes back to being a gay one. And there's been this implication that the Wizard and the Jester's father had a gay relationship back in the day.
Winnifred passes the test -- which I called when she winced from the King's strong handshake -- but it's unclear as to whether she had help. The Minstrel infiltrates the Wizard's confidence and then we don't hear/see anything else about this but after the triumph the chorus sings "It wasn't the pea at all" and brings out MassEquality.Org signs and a pink dildo. Were those placed under the bed?
It's never stated that Winnifred is male (btw, as soon as she said her name and how she preferred a nickname I called that the nickname would be "Fred" natch and thought of the phone call in BtVS 7.17 ;) ) which I thought detracted from the power of the show as a prio-gay-marriage propaganda piece -- which is ironic because earlier that evening I'd been lamenting to Jonah the heavy-handed nature of a lot of the youth films I'd seen at the MFA screening that afternoon; upon reflection I decided that the end of the show was fairly emphatic with a moral that people should be able to marry who they want (Dauntless really does like Fred a lot, and the Queen v. much doesn't).
The whole "nobody is good enough for my son and oh I actually almost wanna marry him myself; I certainly hate my own husband" thing the Queen did with Dauntless made me somewhat uncomfortable (ye olde stereotype of smothering mothers creating gay sons) but what really troubled me was at the end when the King issues commands to the Queen -- "Hop, skip, jump." I liked the idea that the curse's wording referred to Dauntless standing up to his mother, and it was a nice touch to have the Queen (who never shut up) silenced when her husband got his voice back, and I was totally onboard with his "Now you're gonna have to listen to me and I have a lot to say" (the curse had been in effect for something like 12 years) but to give commands like that? Way disturbing. And the chorus is totally cheering it, and by implication the audience is supposed to as well. This seemed really gratuitous to me.
The next day I did some research.
The Metro review opens:
It's hard to imagine why the Animus Ensemble would bother to drag out the dull, dated musical "Once Upon a Mattress" until you've seen what they've done to it.The note from the Artistic Director (Ambrosino) and Associate Artistic Director (Josie Bray) that opens the program says, "You're about to see this show in a way that you've never seen it---and the funny thing is, we didn't change a word!"
Director John Ambrosino has added a twist to the largely forgettable adaptation of the classic fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" that turns it into a high-camp laugh-fest complete with a lambasting of power-mongers and a happily-ever-after ending that can only happen in Massachusetts.
Turns out it was originally an off-Broadway production in 1959 and has had numerous revivals. (Wiki) Animus played it very campy, but neither the words nor the music of any of the songs are very strong, so I really don't understand its continued popularity.
The troubling gender stuff makes more sense to me now, and I'm rather impressed at how much Animus managed to put in extra-textually.