When the Corbett Children's Theater studies something, it really studies it. The company has decided to take on not one, but two renditions of the classic tale "The Princess and the Pea" for its spring performance season.
Both shows are absurdist, comedic riffs on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. "Once Upon a Mattress," to be performed by the older actors, is a musical, while "The Princess and the Pea" theater adaptation is a straight play and will be performed by the company's "Rising Stars."
The premise behind both productions remains largely the same: a prince, shepherded by his pushy, devious matriarch (a grandmother in the play, mother in the musical), goes on a journey to find his true love. But, in order to marry the woman he chooses, she must pass the true princess "test" of sensing a tiny pea through layers of fluffy mattress padding.
Liz Bertsch, who directs the next generation performance of "Princess and the Pea," says lovingly that her show is "as cheesy as cheese comes," chock full of slapstick humor.
Bertsch typically directs mainstage productions, but she's been invigorated by working with actors as young as 4 years old.
"It's a joy to get to watch younger kids be focused; they perform an hour long show and they're just as good as middle school and high school counterparts," she said.
And the young actors are taking the acting challenge in stride.
Alissa Cohen, who is 11 years old, plays Princess Olivia in the Rising Star production. Olivia catches the Prince's eye and eventually, passes the "true" princess test. Though it's a main role with lots of lines, Alissa relishes the opportunity.
"I really like having the responsibility," she said.
Bertsch said she especially notices how willing the younger students are to embrace "fresh ideas."
"Young students are very open to trying new things and have a lot of new energy," she said. "Much like when you first start a job — how you're just really excited to be there, really getting a hang of things, and the whole world is full of opportunity — it's the same thing with the younger students."
'Mattress' on the mainstage
Another director in a new role at the Children's Theater, Jess Sheppard is much more at home behind the scenes either as a costumer or a stage manager. But she's enjoying the opportunity to see the actors, whom she's known for years in some cases, on a different level — especially given how absurd the content gets.
One of her favorite moments comes in the second act when the king, under a curse that forbids him from talking, has to try to pantomime the "talk" with his son.
"It's adorable to see a mute king trying to explain the birds and the bees to his son in a PG manner," Sheppard said.
Jessie Turner, 17, plays Queen Aggravain in the "Mattress" show. She's embraced the over-the-top humor, which is a departure from her own, more reserved personality.
"It's really fun to sort of let out my energy this way," Turner said. "I like to think that I'm a more mellow person; whereas Aggravain is outspoken. She has her opinion and she wants everyone to know."
Sheppard says it's rewarding to see her actors push themselves to that level.
"I can't say enough good things about them," she said. "When they have a eureka moment — it's just a magical feeling."