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by Jeannette Jaquish
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” folktale originated in Germany, with variations in France, Scotland and Russia, and all of them boring. That this formulaic pablum was so popular proves Thomas Hobbes’ description of Olde Worlde life during turmoil: “nasty, brutish and short”. Evidently, any pathetic story was better than real life. But the story has an fills a need particular to our time as well: The usual shortage of boys, but excess of girls, at a typical musical theater audition, especially girls who have taken years of dance, gymnastics and show choir and, as little girls, loved all things princess.
So when I was asked to write the story as a script, I cringed. It was full of those stupid threes common to oral literature (three visits, three tree groves), no explanation of how the underworld ballroom, boats, trees and princes came into existence, no villain, and the girls give up their exciting adventures without a whimper, and the chosen goes dutifully to her new tattletale husband. I was one of those little girls who hated all things princess and envied boys their blue jeans and horseplay, so I knew I had to dismember and re-build the story full of danger, quirky characters, irony and absurdity. Every play I’ve written went through an excruciating time when failure leered, until the characters took charge. And the same with this one.
How to get the boy (not the folktale’s old man) on the road? He is escaping the aggressively flirtatious ugly girls (played by boys) of his home town. “... And her neck be instead, not the width of her head, but softly furled with pearls and curls,” Cobb the cobbler sings about his dream of marrying a princess. And the Townfolk are flabbergasted: "How can you reject our Hobnobbit young ladies? Each more beautiful, charming and amusing than. . . any farm animal?"
In the folktale the fellow meets an old woman who tells him the mysterious case of the 12 princesses who disappear every night and show up sleepy with their dancing shoes worn through. Of course, this useful old woman is then forgotten. As a nearly old woman myself, this needed remedying. A missing person at the castle made that possible.
Who are these princesses, described in the folktale only as “more beautiful than the next”? Why are they so sneaky? The King laments, “So much I have done for them! . . . . I have attended peace talks with other countries to take their royals hostage. I kidnapped the most beautiful, loving wife to be my children’s mother! All this to give my children safety, riches and power! And what do they reward me with? Lies and trickery!”
The 12 princess daughters (remember Tevye lamenting his measly five daughters?) are equally self-serving in their attitudes, loving their father, but deceiving him, and except for the youngest, with no twinge of guilt. They get themselves into a pickle and who do you think comes to their rescue?
When Cobb finally gets his chance to speak to a princess, it is not one, but all 12 who present their slender bare feet into his clammy hands for the new shoes he has made. It is the last one who especially catches his eye and snags his heart. Is he ready with a few witty words and a wry twist of the eyebrow? No. Of course not. When are we ever in top form when opportunity, especially for love, extends its perfect big toe into our grasp? He gapes, fumbles and puts her shoes on the wrong feet while gazing at her smugly superior expression. He is oblivious to the turmoil in the rest of the room -- her sisters, who are so accustomed to ignoring the servants, suddenly realize he is there and assume he has overheard their discussion of their secret nightly rendezvous. Although it is the girl of his dreams who stumbles into humiliation with shoes on the wrong feet, it is the stuttering boy who has gotten off on the wrong foot.
This is a talented cast of 33 so I cannot mention them all. Sam Smiley, playing Cobb, was last seen as Oliver at Youtheatre. Exceptional dancers Valleri Bowman, Sayda and Avey Bower, Chloe Cameron, Anna Boeglin, Katheryne and Hannah Schauer, Carolann Byers and Anthony Hayes showed the way and now all smoothly trace the floor in the four musical numbers. I saw stubborn, uncomfortable boys whom I had to take the hand of and pull into position, and command to take their girl’s hands, learn the steps and become grinning athletes on the dance floor. Simple folk-type dance should be taught in elementary school! It bridges that destructive canyon between girls and boys. Brandon Johnson, who played Lion in my Wizard of Oz show, is hilarious as the stammering, groggy prince appointed to watch the princesses. The villainous Grand Vizier is creepily played by Kael Bronson who recently played Peter in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.
Live theater is liberating. By playing other characters, an actor is forced to think as they do, consider their history and why they are how they are. Getting through it onstage breaks that neurosis that so illogically infects most of humanity: the fear of public speaking! Fear of snakes, heights, small spaces, spiders... Yes! They’ll kill you! But speaking up to explain yourself when accused, to argue for justice, to rally for a cause, or just to apologize, or tell someone their zipper is down -- We need more of that! Being able to speak up is like a superpower.
So take your family to live theater. It cannot survive on just actors’ families buying tickets. And it shouldn’t need grants if all seats are sold. Live theater invigorates watchers and performers.
Ecstatic Theatrics presents “Slipperzzzz! Cobb and the 12 Dancing Princesses” Sept. 7, 14, 21 and 28, at 11am, at Cinema Center, 437 E. Berry. $6. Call 484-5946 or 750-9013.