"Once Upon a Mattress"

Playing for keeps: Princess Winnifred (Shannon Dean) takes on a recalcitrant instrument in the Sherbino Theater Company’s production of “Once Upon a Mattress.” (Photo by Johnny Lee)


What’s the definition of a true princess? What role should one’s family play in the life of a royal?

Timely questions, when you consider the melodrama swirling around the pending nuptials between Meghan Markle, commoner, and Prince Harry of the House of Windsor this weekend. 

Hans Christian Andersen had an answer for that first conundrum: place a legume beneath the lady’s mattress and see if she sleeps. At least, that was the solution in his classic fairy tale of 1835, “The Princess and the Pea” (today it’s apparently a little more complicated). 

Fast forward 150 years, post-Christensen, and “The Princess and the Pea” has been reimagined as “Once Upon a Mattress,” a raucous musical comedy that marked the Broadway debut of a little-known actress named Carol Burnett. 

Run the clock out another six decades, and “Mattress” lands in Ridgway, where it will be performed this weekend by the Sherbino Theater Company under the direction of Kathleen O’Mara.

In “Once Upon a Mattress,” the heroine is brash — she’s known as Winnifred, but answers to Fred. The Prince is Dauntless. And the prince’s evil mother, determined to stand in the way of true love, poses mind-bending questions like this to the young women seeking to meet her son: “What was the middle name of the daughter-in-law of the best friend of the blacksmith who forged the sword that killed the beast?” 

O’Mara can’t recall whose idea it was to stage “Once Upon a Mattress.” “We have company meetings to decide and select shows, and it wasn’t on the list, initially,” she said. “I can’t even remember how it came up.” But upon revisting said list, “we thought it would be perfect for this troupe.”

“This is a group of adults that really wants to have fun, and play,” O’Mara said of her actors, and “the dialogue, and the text, and the strength of the characters” were perfect vehicles for that. 

“Mattress” is, in essence, a spoof — a reimagining of a highly imaginative story. In the course of her research, O’Mara said, “one of the fun things I discovered is the definition of a fairy tale: a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” 

Based on that definition, the history of how this troupe was developed “has been quite the fairy tale as well.”

“Once Upon a Mattress” is the Sherbino Theater Company’s fourth main stage production and the company continues to expand, adding actors, garnering fans, and gaining programs (indeed, it could be said to resemble another fairy tale: “Jack and the Beanstalk”). 

“Next Wednesday, we have auditions for a new series called ‘Little to Big,’” O’Mara said. “We’ll begin with a performance of the classic tale of ‘The Little Prince.’ We’re going to invite young actors to work alongside adults in the production.” 

Up to this point, O’Mara has staged pieces for kids, and for adults, but never put them together. It was a happy accident that got her directing adults in the first place, she said. “When I arrived in Ridgway, I began working with Weehawken Arts on youth programming. During a rehearsal of ‘Rockin’ Alice’” — a rock musical take on “Alice in Wonderland” — “the guitarist David Nunn looked at me and said, “you should do something for adults, like Monty Python or something.’”  

In fact, O’Mara did direct “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for adults last fall, “and it went from there.” Now Ridgway has an adult community theater troupe. 

“They’re still growing and gaining confidence,” she emphasized. Even so, the theatrical mojo is flowing: “They’re doing a very good job with the music in this production. It’s not an easy story to sing; it has more complex musicality than you might imagine, given how campy it is. Shannon Dean, who plays Winnifred, has done a remarkable job with the lead. As it turns out, it was on her bucket list of roles to play. She’s embraced this role. And Lance Fitzgerald is doing wonderful work with the character of Prince Dauntless. You’ve got to believe your actors, and the story you’re telling.” When it comes to this cast, O’Mara said, “I believe them.”

Other details are falling into place, too. For example, the Sherbino’s board assisted the troupe in its recent renovations. “We knocked down a wall that gave us an additional 4 feet upstage,” O’Mara said, “which is really wonderful when you have 22 actors up there,” as will be the case this weekend. Holes have been cut in the theater’s sidewalls to allow for entrances on the left and right side of the stage as well as the rear, “and there are new 12 lamps, which really adds a whole new level to the theatricality. For ‘Holy Grail,’ I had three lamps, and I was plugging and unplugging extension cords.” 

More good news has come in the form of community support: “We can work all day long, but you have to have butts in seats. To have all this interest in the community from actors and designers and audience members, it’s very special.”

And so our story comes to a close. 

Across the Atlantic, there is a family drama involving a royal wedding; a dream-come-true threatens to unravel.

At the same time, in Ridgway, O’Mara is living the opposite. “I’ve traveled and worked across the country for so many years as a kind of gypsy. A theatrical gun-for-hire,” she said. “To end up here, and find this support for a working director, it’s a fairy-tale ending for me.”  

“Once Upon a Matttress” will be performed Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at sherbino.org or at the door.