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Waiter, There's a Pea in My Bed! 

Next to "free continental breakfast," the most abused bit of retail hyperbole is a thing called "family fun." This usually translates to a noxious potpourri of go-carts, funnel cakes, and machines that require coins to make a lot of noise. However, with only a few very exceptions, the Fine Art Center's current production of Once Upon a Mattress defies the description and manages to be just that -- gulp -- wholesome family entertainment.

Last Thursday's audience was teeming with the less-than-elusive Osh Kosh B'Gosh set. A good barometer for any children's program -- not to imply that this "Princess and the Pea"derived fable is purely puerile -- is to listen to the kids. Are they squirming? Whining? Begging for deliverance to Chuck E Cheese? But the many children in the audience seemed only too delighted by the performance, as did most of the adults.

The show's emcee, minstrel Scott Woodard, abetted by a puppet or two, heralds a familiar tale. A wicked queen has issued a fatwah forbidding anyone in her kingdom to marry until her son, the effete Prince Dauntless (Dant Martinez) finds a bride of suitably royal caliber.

Queen Aggravain is no queen mum in the British sense, but a raging wretch (in the Ann Coulter sense) played with the necessary degree of divaesque devilry by the delightful Darya Robertson-Pingel. She subjects her son's female suitors to unspeakably esoteric tests, allegedly to ensure that the princess is, in fact, bona fide. (One might fancy what a version of this play might look like were it set in West Hollywood where there's actually a princess surplus.) In reality though, Aggravain is bent on maintaining her dysfunctional despotism over her son.

By way of subplots we have -- gasps of shock and horror -- a classic case of the courtier up the pole. In this case it's Lady Larken (played by the lovely Caroline Moore) put in the family way by Sir Harry (the ubiquitous Robert Lays). Larken fears that if a princess is not found soon, she will be banished for the sin of premarital pregnancy. (Learn more about this topic from our friends at Focus on the Family: http://www.family.org/married/romance/a0020147.cfm.)

Sir Harry, whose rich voice has an eerily Troy McClurish quality, wastes no time in making amends -- or merely covering his knighted ass -- and breaks north on princess reconnaissance. He returns with one Winnifred of Woebegone. After making a wet first impression on her future mother-in-law by swimming the moat -- a scene that includes some well-choreographed slapstick from the male chorus -- Winnifred informs us that she's shy.

"Shy" is one of the funnier musical numbers in the show, and Annie Anderson makes for a wonderful tomboyish princess. Prince Dauntless starts calling her Fred, as he wastes no time in falling in love. The amateur psychologists can clearly see that the prince is merely exchanging one matriarchal tyrant for another. The rest of the tale deals with the well-known pea-in-the-mattress integrity test.

Some other notable performances include King Sextimus the Silent, played with Benny Hilllike abandon by Milton Sommers. In addition, Craig Engle's pyromaniac Wizard brings a bit of comic relief and a necessary antidote to the Gandalf stereotype, and the freewheeling footwork of jester Matthew Cucullu was a pleasure.

The ending will not surprise anyone, but it's always good fun to see a despot overthrown. At least in the land of make-believe ...

-- John Dicker

capsule

Once Upon a Mattress

Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Fridays Saturdays, Dec. 13-21, 8 p.m.

Sundays, Dec. 15 & Dec. 22, 2 p.m.

Tickets: $20-$25. Call 634-5583

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