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Turning Japanese

Youtheatre’s kabuki version of The Princess and the Pea

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


As fairy tales go, one of the classics that never seems to lose its magic dust is The Princess and the Pea. It’s been revisited frequently in film and on stage, and perhaps one of the reasons the story seems ripe for reinvention is that it’s a lot of fun for actors and directors to put their own stamp on the basic bare bone material of the story. You’ve got a domineering mother; a wimpy and childish prince; and a succession of spoiled, demanding princesses.

But Youtheatre is doing something completely different for its own production of Princess and the Pea.

They’re doing it kabuki style.

That’s classical Japanese theater, often associated with full make up, kimonos, and highly-stylized gestures. And that’s exactly how Youtheatre is approaching The Princess and The Pea this time around. “Japanese kimonos, wigs, make-up… the whole ball game” says Youtheatre executive director Harvey Cocks.

It’s not just the costuming that makes this different. In kabuki theater, everything is done right in front of the audience — the people handling sound and props are right on stage, in full view. But most importantly, the actors really have to play big in kabuki. “These kids are used to learning how to play very realistically and underplay and all that, so its been a challenge for them to learn this new style,” says Cocks, adding that that was one of the reasons Youtheatre chose to do The Princess and the Pea as kabuki theater. “Playing big is a useful thing for an actor to learn.”

The cast, many of whom have appeared in Youtheatre productions before, admit to being a little thrown at first. “In the beginning it was a little difficult,” says Nathan Brophy, who plays Prince Rolf. “Everyone was wondering ‘what are we doing?’”

They studied kabuki a little to familiarize themselves with the basic ideas, and now seem to be having fun with it. “Everything is larger than life,” says Alan Fodrey (Prince Eric). “It’s exaggerated and huge.”

“It’s much bigger than regular theater,” adds Tre Moeckle, who plays the blind Prime Minister. “Our expressions need to be bigger, our movements need to be bigger… you can never be too big.” For his own part, Moeckel looked a little closer than kabuki theater for inspiration. “I kind of thought the Prime Minister would be like Willy Wonka.”

Tatum Ellis, who plays the bratty, gold-digging Princess Sophie — one of the succession of princesses who does not make the cut — says that she thinks learning a new style of acting will help her break some bad stage habits. “I’ve always been one to kind of underact a little,” she says. “You can’t do that here. This has helped me ‘open up’ a little on stage.”

Sara Jaworski (Caterina) agrees. Jarowski has been in a number of productions in the community and hopes to continue acting; she sees learning the kabuki style as an opportunity to expand her repertorie. “When I see other plays and movies, the actors act more realistically,” she says. “I’ve never seen this kind of acting before, and I think it will help me broaden my horizons.”

The Princess and the Pea is also a sort of “play within a play,” where many of the roles usually reserved for behind the curtains are on stage with the other actors. Londen Shannon plays “the reciter,” a sort of narrator and puppet master controlling the action and the characters. Kevin Fodrey provides music and sound effects, while Cameron Webb makes his Youtheatre debut as the prop man. “He’s in view for the whole thing,” he says. “It was kind of hard to get used to at first.”

The cast won’t be in full kabuki make-up until a few days before play’s opening. Asked if they’re looking forward to putting on the paint, all they’ll offer is that it will be an “interesting” experience. But Kathy Pelter, the only adult in The Princess and the Pea (she plays, appropriately enough, the Queen) thinks getting into full dress will make everything click. “The make-up and the costumes always helps you get into it, especially when you’re doing something this far from reality,” she says. “You’re a little more… uninhibited when you’re in your make-up.”

And losing some of those on-stage inhibitions, the self-consciousness many young actors need work against, is one of the big reasons behind this experiment in acting style. “An actor or actress shouldn’t be afraid to make a fool of themselves,” says Alan Fodrey. “Harvey tells us that everyday.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre presents The Princess and the Pea
Saturday April 24 2:00 PM
Sunday April 25 2:00 PM
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $12 adults; $8 students/children
Call (260) 422-4226 between noon – 4 pm for tickets.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.