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'Once Upon a Mattress'

Rocky Run Middle presents musical comedy.

Featuring a cast and crew of 60, Rocky Run Middle School will present the musical comedy, "Once Upon a Mattress." And although the actors are young, says Director Valerie Karasek, their achievements on stage are way beyond their years.

"I HAVE A stellar cast of natural-born comedians, and they've certainly risen to the occasion," she said. "It's about as close to professional theater on a school stage as you'll ever see."

"These students have worked very hard, and their passion, dedication and commitment shows in every song, every step and every word," continued Karasek. "It's a true labor of love."

Show times are Wednesday-Saturday, May 30-June 2, at 7:30 p.m. each night, and Sunday, June 3, at 3 p.m. in the school theater. Tickets are $6 at the door. They may also be purchased at Rocky Run, or contact Brenda Scudder at 703-631-0478 or at scudbrenda@aol.com.

In the story, Prince Dauntless wants to marry a princess, and Princess Winnifred is the 13th hopeful. But his mother, Queen Aggravain, gives the candidates impossible tests to pass.

Portraying Princess Winnifred is eighth-grader Nadine Rousseau, who describes her character as wild, friendly, optimistic and sensitive. "I'm different than the other princesses because I swam a moat to get to the prince's castle," she explained. "And I'm from the swamps, so the queen doesn't believe I'm a princess."

So Winnifred must take a test to prove she's a real princess. The queen will place a pea under 20 mattresses and, if Winnifred feels it, the queen will believe her. "But I don't realize that'll be the test," said Rousseau. "So I'm studying history and trying to figure out what she'll ask me."

Rousseau said it's a bit difficult acting like a tomboy when, in real life, she's a ballerina. But she likes her role because it's so different from the character she played last year — Maria in "West Side Story." And she enjoys being wild on stage and releasing all her character's energy.

Her favorite song is "Happily Ever After," in which Winnifred "puts down the other fairytale characters." And she says the audience will be excited about the show. "It's cool to see what middle-schoolers can do," said Rousseau. "You hear about high-school students, but middle-schoolers can act well, too."

EIGHTH-GRADER Connor Scudder plays Prince Dauntless. "He's the typical mama's boy, not used to acting around the ladies," said Scudder. "He's also not very intelligent. His mom bosses around both her son and husband, who's mute because of a long-ago curse."

Scudder enjoys his part because "it's a really laid-back character, different from the serious roles I've played before." And he says the audience will love the show because it's so much fun and "there's a lot of ensemble singing and dancing."

His favorite song is "The Man-to-Man Talk," which he sings and which is downright hilarious. In it, said Scudder, "My dad is explaining marriage and the facts of life to me — in pantomime."

Playing his father, the king, is Billy Germain, 13, who calls his character "a child at heart" who still plays with pogo sticks and other toys. "He doesn't like the queen because she's so mean to their son, but he's a nice guy," said Germain. "It's fun because I do lots of pantomiming and am very energetic."

He, too, likes "The Man-to-Man Talk" and says the audience will, as well. "I have to teach my son about how babies are made, and I do it with boy and girl flowers," said Germain. "This number is turning out really great, so it may be our showstopper song." As for the show, he says it's "all alive and spunky, with its own, new ending. It's way cooler than the original 'Princess and the Pea.'"

Jessica Salazar, 14, portrays Queen Aggravain. "She's vain and aggravating," said Salazar. "She likes to be in power and feeds off of it. She's very manipulative and wants things to go her way. And if that's not happening, she'll do them herself."

At first, said Salazar, it was a tough role "because I'm not anything like her; I'm more melancholy and she's bossy and mean. But I've grown into her, and now I'm really embracing her and enjoying the challenge. And it's fun being bossy whenever I want to."

"SENSITIVITY" is her favorite song in the show. "I sing a song complaining about how I'm more royal than people realize I am," said Salazar. "I think the audience will like the different personalities of all the characters and will be drawn to how real they can be."

Eighth-grader Josh King plays Sir Harry, the queen's greatest knight. "He's in love with Lady Larken and is completely full of himself and very vain," said King. "People say I'm nothing like him, but I really am."

He said this part's fun because his character's "so obnoxious and I get to overact." His favorite song is "Yesterday I Loved You" because "it's dramatic and I get to sing it."

Playing Lady Larken is Carina Cavalheri, 14. "She's your typical damsel in distress and a pregnant lady in waiting," explained Cavalheri. "Sir Harry's the father and I'm in love with him. But no one's allowed to get married until Dauntless does, and you're not supposed to get pregnant until you're married. So if Dauntless doesn't get married, I'll have to run away."

Since her character is sometimes sweet and, other times, rude or mean, Cavalheri enjoys the challenge of portraying her various personalities. "Our amazing director, Ms. K., gives me tips on how to play her and makes it interesting," she said. "And I get to work with Josh, who's amazing at what he does." Besides that, she said, the audience will also appreciate all the hard work and effort the parents put into the set and costumes.

Dressed in a multicolored tunic, a cap with fabric balls hanging from every point and bells on his stockings, Spencer Parkinson, 14, plays the jester. But he says his character's "not really goofy. He's always thinking of his dead father and how his father expected him to follow in his footsteps and be a dancer. But he got the jester job."

There's also a wizard who used to work with the jester's dad. But the wizard dislikes the jester because he's always trying to ask him questions. "I'm best friends with the minstrel and the king," said Parkinson. "We're like the Three Amigos."

He's glad he got to be the jester because "I like my song and I wanted to wear a cool costume. And I like to feel like it's me and the minstrel that make the happily-ever-after ending happen."

Portraying the wizard is Zach Seid, 13. "He's really a scheming character, servile to the queen and always trying to get himself into a position of power," said Seid. "He's aloof toward common people and considers himself above everyone else. But he'll do anything for the queen."

He auditioned for this part because, he said, "I can be good at acting evil and overdramatic. The wizard shows one side to the public, but is really something different."

Seid's favorite song is "Shy," which Winnifred sings as she searches for her prince, but Dauntless is too shy to appear before her. He says the audience will love the show because "it's everything you could possibly want in a play. It's got comedy, fight scenes and good music, and it really highlights everyone in the show. No one person shines above the rest."

And the actors say that's due, in great part, to their director. "Ms. K. puts a lot of dedication into the performance," said Salazar. "From the day we start, this is her life," added Rousseau. "We learned how much hard work this takes," said Salazar. "It's not something you throw together overnight and, when it all comes together, it's amazing."

Karasek, though, credits everyone else. "The parents are exhibiting extraordinary talents," she said. "Lori Rousseau has designed and built stunning, medieval costumes. And Lisa Hollen, Karen Emsley, Lois Moore and Craig Dykstra are our Dream Team, painting a beautiful set."

She said they took a set model and a vision and "brought it beautifully to life, and more. The set painting is detailed and magical, and we have an 8-foot bed with 20 mattresses that they've designed and put together."

AS FOR HER young thespians, Karasek called them "a director's dream because, through the rehearsal process and a commitment to the material, they've learned to understand the importance of comedic timing and have mastered this technique."

She said her actors have "a maturity and an innate sense of comedy to be able to take this material and approach it in a professional way. This is a fractured fairytale that requires strong singers and great, comedic talents — and we've got them."