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Director comments on 'Once Upon a Mattress'

The Minstrel, left, played by Sara Kessler, watches the Wizard, played by Paul Ashwood attempt to conjure up some trouble in “Once Upon a Mattress,” which will be performed at The Phipps starting March 9. Photo courtesy of The Phipps

"Once Upon a Mattress," a fractured fairy tale musical comedy with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, and the book by Jay Thompson, Barer, and Dean Fuller, will be performed March 9-31 on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. as well as Sundays at 2 p.m. at The Phipps Center for the Arts.

The play takes place long ago in a far-away kingdom. As the result of a curse, King Sextimus is unable to speak. His terror-of-a-wife, Queen Aggravain, has assumed control and is determined to keep their son, Prince Dauntless, unmarried. In order to accomplish this, she has decreed that only a princess who can pass her ridiculous test would be worthy to marry her son. To further complicate the situation, the queen will not allow anyone else in the kingdom to marry until Prince Dauntless does. This greatly disturbs Lady Larken and Sir Harry, as Lady Larkin is pregnant with Sir Harry's child. Sir Harry finds an amazing princess, Winnifred the Woebegone, who charms the entire castle, particularly Prince Dauntless. The queen devises an impossible sensitivity test for Winnifred, a tiny pea beneath 20 mattresses. Winnifred will determine the fate of the kingdom.

The show is directed by John Kunik, who has been an active director in the area with productions in Lakeville, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Buffalo, Minn. He also directed "Squabbles" at The Phipps many years ago and is happy to be back.

Kunik states that directing at The Phipps "... feels like he is working in a professional theater."

"Directing at The Phipps is like being a kid in the candy store. I have the luxury of just directing," he said.

He credits this to Mark C. Koski, the technical director, and the quality production staff: Ruth Ashwood, musical director; Chris Adam, choreographer; Jay Ganz, scenic designer; Jacob Lee Hofer, lighting designer; Tom Dahle, sound designer; Judy Kastelle, costume designer; and Kim Mazur, properties designer. Kunik is also impressed with the organizational skills of Cally Ahlin, the stage manager.

"Once Upon a Mattress" is a show that Kunik enjoyed during his first season of summer stock in Flint, Mich. He was energized by the music, from the appealing "Song of Love" to the wonderful vocals of "Normandy" to what he hopes will be a memorable staging of "Spanish Panic."

He has also cast a smaller ensemble than is often seen. Kunik prefers this approach because it allows him to double and triple roles for the actors. His directing style is one that attempts to get everyone involved. He likes to reserve defining context and details until the show is cast. Then he looks at the talent he has and creates from there. Kunik also encourages the actors to be creative and try out their own ideas.

"By having the actors involved in the blocking and creativity, it encourages them to listen and watch what is happening on stage," he said.

As director, he will fine tune and make decisions that are best for the overall effect. Kunik is pleased with the talent of the actors who are in the production, and rehearsals have been enjoyable for all. He is also hoping there will be some surprises for the audience as he incorporates a variety of comedic styles.

Tickets are $27 for adults and $20 for students of any age, with a $2 discount for seniors on the Sunday matinees. Reservations may be made by contacting The Phipps ticket office at 715-386-8409 or online at