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Telling Fairy Tales

`The Frog Prince' at Adams House

By Adam E. Pachter

As Stephen Sondheim discovered in his musical Into the Woods, updating a fairy tale presents some prickly challenges. The old-fashioned and sometimes painfully stilted language must be made contemporary and relevant. At the same time, a writer should remain faithful to that sense of enchantment and wonder which underscores every fantasy.

David Mamet should be congratulated. His play The Frog Prince skillfully combines sentiment and savvy, manages to be both irreverent and warm-hearted.

The plot of The Frog Prince is familiar to any child who has grown up with The Brothers Grimm. A prince (Jeremy Dawson), soon to marry his beloved, strays onto the land of a hideous crone (Michelle Holdt). When he refuses to offer her his fresh-picked flowers, she turns him into a frog.

Abandoned by all except his loyal servant (Laurent Ruseckas), the Frog Prince wanders through the forest, seeking a woman who will kiss and restore him to his human form. He chooses the beautiful milkmaid (Laura Dickinson), living nearby, as his target.

Mamet and director Noah Kupferberg have a common insight into the interpretation of the fairy tales: the characters in the tale might very well be aware of how insincere or even sarcastic they, and the other players, are being. The actors in The Frog Prince are playful--they take things less seriously than many audience members would expect. The prince, for example, is rightfully dubious when his servant tells him that he and his beloved fiancee are universally loved. "Sire," the servant says, "the people love her as yourself," and the prince rolls his eyes.

Jeremy Dawson spends a good portion of the The Frog Prince rolling his eyes. As the prince, he dispenses scads of flowery phrases he obviously does not believe or even understand. Dawson's facial expressions and zingy one-liners provide much of the play's humor. After his confrontation with the hag, he declares, "I've got just one thought to leave you with: Monarchy!" When the hag first demands the flowers from him, he refuses, taunting her with a juvenile, "Tough."

Particularly well-done is the scene in which the Frog Prince proposes, in frog form, to the milkmaid. Dickinson treats his ludicrous romantic proposals with the deepest seriousness. In contrast with Dickinson's straightforward dealings with people, Dawson's own seem particularly disingenuous.

As the pseudo-profound milkmaid, Dickinson gives another of the play's outstanding performances. Her character is just daffy enough, gazing off and batting her eyelashes when she declares, "Life is such a mystery." While the milkmaid is essentially a one-note role, Dickinson keeps her surfer-girl facial expressions varied and amusing.

Kupferberg deserves credit for his decision to stage The Frog Prince in a narrow outside patio. The sky at dusk provides a fitting backdrop for the action, and the characters incorporate us into the setting by making their enterances from behind the audience. The Herald (Christopher Davidson) also helps in this capacity--he introduces us to each scene with wonderfully realistic-sounding solos on an imaginary trumpet. Kudos also to the producer Valerie Nestor for the Mickey Mouse blankets distributed beforehand to ward off cold.

All is not fun and games in The Frog Prince. Not every character lives happily ever after. Frequent allusions are made to a totalitarian government which closes the borders of the kingdom at night, and justice and execution there are arbitrary. But The Frog Prince never loses its delicate balance between cynicism and celebration. As a result Kupferberg's production has a warm, delightful tone, even in its mockery. And that is no mean feat.

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