The Princess and the Pill // By Jackie Hoffman
Actor Jackie Hoffman brings a fresh take—eye rolls included—to the iconic unlikely royal role.
Unlike every other actor and non-actor on the planet, I never was in a production of Once Upon a Mattress. Never. Not in school, not in camp. Not at the community center, not at the synagogue. My only connection with Once Upon a Mattress was my struggle with lifelong insomnia. A single pea under 20 mattresses keeps Princess Winnifred awake. My “pea” is anxiety. When will I work again, who will die, when will I die, which disease will I be diagnosed with next, when will I work again? Instead of treating the root of the problem, I take the easy but dangerous way out by taking Ambien nightly for years.
I worked again. It started with John Epperson asking me if I wanted to do a reading of Once Upon a Mattress in a room at Abrons Arts Center. My career was slow enough at the time that I said yes. I thought it would be a no-brainer. Carol Burnett, funny woman, legend—Jackie Hoffman, funny woman, not legend. But at that first reading, I found nothing compatible between me and the material. I was surprised how alienated I felt from the material immediately. There were no jokes. Winnifred was a homespun midwestern type no-nonsense gal. I am an urban Jewish neurotic self-loathing gal. I would have to bring the big guns out and try: acting.
I’ve seen the show a couple of times, and every Winnifred I saw was sweet and charming and attempting to be goofy, but she wasn’t funny. I had to have faith in my funny. My funny would get me through. I could not click with the character at that first reading because I had Carol’s iconic portrayal in my head too much. I couldn’t, as that irritating actor phrase goes, make it mine. No matter. It’s just a reading, and then it will go away. Well, John Epperson doesn’t give up easily. Or ever. He brought in that Transport group terrier, Jack Cummings III. Before I knew it, we did a concert performance of the full show and in the audience was the lovely late Mary Rodgers. It started to become mine. Wacky noises, goofy sounds, loud singing—all in my wheelhouse. And let us not forget the noblest of Stanislavski’s teaching: face making. As you’ve read in every version of the Transport Group fairy tale, Mary asked Jack immediately after the concert, “When do we start rehearsals?” and we were off.
I had trepidation about working with Transport Group. I saw their productions as often brilliant and innovative but weird. Sex on tables. Old women playing children. Inviting the audience up onstage. I feared this would be a production where we would all be in wheelchairs and the chorus would be played by tuna. Our first rehearsal for my big opening number required me to stand on a rickety tall table. I hated it but if this is what it meant to be the star, I would try. No one else is going to cast me in the lead of anything. Our choreographer Scott Rink knew my limitations just from looking at me, and brilliantly choreographed moves where I was manhandled and thrown around, so it sort of looked like I was dancing when I was actually being danced. Matt Castle, our music director, had his hands full with me. I’m actually a surprise soprano and all of Carol’s/Winnifred’s songs sit entirely on what real singers would call my break. I tried to belt and would crack notes constantly. Every note of mine sounded like Carol Burnett’s Tarzan call. Kathryn Rohe who did costumes found and created darling stuff for me, at least there was a small budget for something. The actors were getting poverty wages. I mean, c’mon—sacrifices are necessary—no one else is going to cast me in the lead of anything. But most of all there were the notes. I endured Jack Cummings III‘s deliberately insulting obnoxious condescending notes—like something an unwanted little brother would leave on his sister’s pillow along with a wad of chewed gum. “Um, I don’t know if you meant to do that at the end of the song, so I’ll just trust that you won’t do it anymore.”
They taught me at Second City that you’re as good as your partner. If that’s the case, I was very good because my partners were Jason SweetTooth Williams (as Prince Dauntless) and of course, John Epperson (as Queen Aggravain). The amazingly talented cast kept me on my toes and taught me how to be a princess. Through them and through Jack’s annoying and sometimes accurate notes, I eventually found my inner Winnifred. I didn’t find everything though. Winnifred has several numbers with “Shy” being the most well-known, followed by “Swamps of Home,” which was a silly noise opportunity. In the 11 ‘o’clock slot she has a swingin’ striptease type of number called “Happily Ever After.” Our heroine sings about her commitment to living happily ever after just like other fairy tale heroines, and she’ll get laid to boot. Kathryn rigged an easy opening gown and under it I wore my baby doll pajamas. Matt was very patient, and we worked hard on nailing it vocally to the best of my ability. I did my “strip” and I sold the hell out of the ending, going up an octave with a jazzy flourish. And…no one cared. Paltry applause. Tragic. Every night. Maybe some things just belong to Carol.
But I did write an Ambien joke for the final mattress scene.
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