By David Mamet. 78th Street Theatre Lab. New York. 18 July 1999.
Director Eric Nightengale’s whimsical production of The Frog Prince, one of three David Mamet children’s plays, which ran for four weeks this past summer in New York, delighted audiences with Mamet’s charming adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairly tale. Rarely is a spectator attending a performance of a Mamet play offered a paper flower with a pipe-cleaner stem and a choice of magic markers with which to color it. This device encouraged the participation of young audiences, in particular. In fact, a child seated in the row in front of me cringed visibly as the Prince approached her hot pink flower, only to relax in relief when he selected another. These flowers "planted" (or literally stapled) on the stage for the Prince (Toby Wherry) to pick in the opening scene were the sources of conflict with the Old Peasant Woman (Ruth Nightengale, standing in for Jean Taylor), whose admonition is often repeated throughout the play: "Those flowers you must offer me or you will live in misery."
Paper flowers were only one of the many delightful aspects of Si Joong Yoon’s fanciful set, which featured colorful interpretations of the changing seasons to establish mood and progression of time. David Barnes’ upbeat score, performed by The Decibelles, a Motown trio, contributed to the atmosphere. The size of the 78th Street Lab’s black box theater space further supported the intimacy of the production. And, Soyoung Kim’s costumes were particularly resourceful. Pre-metamorphosis, Wherry was the very embodiment of a story-book prince, dressed in a green and blue felt doublet layered over tights. However, his transformation from man to frog was achieved with only minimal costuming. No frog suit for this frog-prince. Instead, Kim provided a bare- bones nod to the Prince’s new amphibian nature: an olive green T-shirt and pants, a green swim-cap to cover his hair, and knee pads. Anything else would have been overkill, as this frog was brought to life by Wherry’s wonderfully elastic facial expressions, body movement, and the occasional "ribbit."
Brett Cramp played the Prince’s benevolent Servingman, whose loyalty eventually results in his death, while Karen Michelle Wright was enchanting as the Milkmaid who kisses the frog, though she neither gets nor wants the prince. After the Prince has determined that the Milkmaid will be the one to kiss him and free him from his curse, he discovers to his chagrin that she is already betrothed to a poor laborer. The Prince, it appears, is doomed to remain a frog, since, for some reason that remains unexplained in the play, he has to declare in advance whom he "elects" to bestow the kiss that will free him. The Milkmaid and the frog, however, establish a close friendship which is convincingly communicated to the audience by their jointly enduring seasonal changes; when the Milkmaid leaves the country to join her banished fiancé, she gives the frog a sweet farewell peck. Hence, the kiss he so eagerly sought is granted, but the Prince, who is busy writing a poem, hardly notices the act nor takes its consequences into account. When the Old Peasant Woman returns to announce his newly restored manhood, the Prince seems more befuddled than elated. A simple "How about that," repeated several times in sheer bewilderment, is about all the Prince can muster in the way of response.
In addition to occasional humorous discourses on art–"what you need in art, and what you need in a bouquet, in short, is what you need in life"–, Mamet gives the fairy tale a slight political bite, as the new rulers (the Prince’s cousin and two-timing former fiancée), motivated by greed, have begun levying unfair taxes and punitive fines and wreaking havoc. Moreover, when the Prince admits that he still doesn’t understand the severity of his punishment – "was it punishment for some general arrogance? For my acceptance of the perquisites of rank?" – the Old Peasant Woman declines to respond, points to his bouquet of newly gathered flowers, and again asks her initial question: "Are those for me?" The Prince, not seeming to have learned his lesson the first time, begins to argue with her, only to hear her curse repeated. A new cycle of misery is narrowly avoided when he proffers the flowers after only momentary hesitation.
The moral of the story and of Mamet’s play? Notably, the Peasant Woman provides no answers, and neither does Mamet, offering his young spectators the opportunity to think about the play’s meaning themselves and come up with their own interpretations.SARAH LANSDALE STEVENSON
New York University