What’s ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ doing at the Shakespeare?

There's got to be more to it than a cool chance to groove on the oeuvre of Britney Spears.

It was high time for a pop culture intervention in the roles that fairy tales prescribe for girls. For centuries these stories have idealized a disempowered female identity. As Andrea Dworkin wrote in her 1974 book Woman Hating,

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow-white, Rapunzel — all are characterized by passivity, beauty, innocence, and victimization. They are archetypal good women — victims by definition. They never think, act, initiate, confront, resist, challenge, feel, care, or question.

To this day fairy tales promise young women a happily ever after that is contingent on being desired and a debilitated sense of self.

That subtext is the crux of Once Upon a One More Time, a fun, feminist new musical just opened spectacularly at DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company on its way to Broadway. It wakes up centuries of bedtime stories, and I predict it will be an intergenerational smash.

The plot (book by Jon Hartmere) is nearly as outlandish as the fairy tales it critiques, and it’s delivered with sensational musical theater performances and stunning stagecraft to the tune of music made mega-famous by Britney Spears. Some have wondered what such a piece of work is doing at a theater renowned for doing the Bard. And therein too lies a tale.

An assortment of storied princesses — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, plus Snow White, Belle, Princess and the Pea, Little Mermaid, Gretel, Goldilocks, and Little Red Riding Hood — dwell in a fabula rasa dreamland (set by Anna Fleischle, lighting by Sonoyo Nishikawa, projections by Sven Ortel, special effects by Jeremy Chernick) where they must play out their prescripted stories at the command of an overlord male Narrator. In a nod to modernity, the princesses all have hip nicknames (Cinderella is Cin, Rapunzel is Pun, Little Mermaid is Little, Red Riding Hood is Red, etc.), they’re dressed in snazzy storybook chic (costumes by Loren Elstein, wigs by Ashley Rae Callahan), and their vocals and dance moves have the pulse and polish of a pop star tour (Keone and Mari Madrid choreograph and direct, music direction by Britt Bonney). But the princesses can’t move on; their stories must be told as is.

Michael McGrath as Narrator, Adrianna Weir as Little Girl, and Briga Heelan as Cinderella in ‘Once Upon a One More Time.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Cin is first to balk. For starters, the smarmy and egocentric Prince Charming does not charm her. He wants her to marry him and have a baby. She wants more. Then lo and behold, who should appear but “the Notorious O.F.G.” — Original Fairy Godmother! She comes bearing a gift: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (the 1963 book that catalyzed the second-wave women’s movement). Cin — who besides being unswayed by princely wooing is incessantly demeaned as a menial domestic by her imperious stepsisters (“You better work, bitch!” they sing) — is intrigued.

CINDERELLA: Ugh. I know, as a woman, I’m supposed to love housework, but…
FAIRY GODMOTHER: No. You aren’t. Chapter 2 deconstructs that.

As Cin’s consciousness elevates, she’s moved to share the book’s message of female empowerment with the other fairy tale princesses. She tells Snow, for instance:

CINDERELLA: I mean, “true love”? That starts when a guy you’ve never met kisses you? An anonymous guy who basically assaults you in the woods —
He discovers you, unconscious in a clearing, and instead of calling for help, he decides to take advantage of you.

Later, with equal zeal, Cin runs it down for Red:

CINDERELLA: You get EATEN. By an apex predator. You spend half your story stewing in lupine stomach acid.

Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Morgan Weed as Princess and the Pea, Briga Heelan as Cinderella, Ashley Chiu as Sleeping Beauty, Lauren Zakrin as Little Mermaid, and Wonu Ogunfowora as Rapunzel (above) in ‘Once Upon a One More Time.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

A diverting subplot has Prince Charming caught two-timing three different princesses (“Oops! I did it again” he sings in one of the show’s many showstoppers). A hyperkinetic chorus of princes dances in and out. An incidental gay male romance blooms. But the show’s focus is the passel of princesses, who own the stage like gangbusters whenever they’re on it, as when they charge Prince Charming with being a “Womanizer/ Princessizer.”

By the end of Act One, the princesses have united and gone on strike. And in Act Two, inspired by “Princess Betty,” they determine individually and collectively to change their narrative.

CINDERELLA: WE can be in charge of our own stories!
Women. Can. Write!
….
If we can be the authors of our own destinies, I demand that we, all of us, get a voice — be the voice — in our stories.

Once upon a time there was a girl who demanded to be heard!

Lauren Zakrin as Little Mermaid, Selene Haro as Gretel, Ashley Chiu as Sleeping Beauty, Adrianna Weir as Little Girl, Wonu Ogunfowora as Rapunzel, Aisha Jackson as Snow White, Jennifer Florentino as Little Red Riding Hood, and Amy Hillner Larsen as Goldilocks in ‘Once Upon a One More Time.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

This pop feminist messaging is a far cry from the passivity and victimization promoted to girls for eons in classical fairy tales (“Well-behaved princesses rarely make history,” as Cin reminds Snow). But not coincidentally this specific message of female self-reliance and empowerment is also the most foundational raison d’être for mounting this production at the estimable Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Here’s why.

Theater as an art form has a particular power to shape human understanding of gender and gender relations. That’s because theater can show gender in action, which is where gender happens. Gender can’t exist in stasis; it is told and acted out in stories that reveal character — the very stuff of theater. We mistakenly think of gender as an appearance, a costume, an esthetic. It’s actually an identity that transpires transactionally in the ethics we enact: Who does what to whom and why and with what consequence.

Shakespeare in his own time, and in his own way, was bending and extending contemporary cultural conceptions of gender. To be sure, he inherited tropes about how men and women are supposed to act, and he stuck with some of them, but with others, he shook them up, reconceiving gendering meanings and empowering women in tragedy, history, and comedy where gender as identity in action can clearly be seen.

“What’s possible when women raise their expectations” (in the words of Red and Pun) can be said abstractly to be the aspirational theme of Once Upon a One More Time. But it is only by what the princesses do during the show — they think, act, initiate, confront, resist, challenge, feel, care, question — that they and we see who they become.

Artistic Director Simon Godwin, explaining this show’s relevance to the mission of Shakespeare Theatre Company, writes in a program note:

Like Shakespeare taking old stories and making them new, this show continues our glorious tradition of reworking the classics for now.

But this show’s take on “reworking the classics” is only part of what makes it an apt fit for STC. Even more salient is this show’s deliberate interrogation of gender expectations as handed down in male-supremacist lore. That’s a job theater is uniquely suited to do (and ought to do more often) — and that’s what Once Upon a One More Time does delightfully.

Princesshood is powerful. Who knew that could come true?

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Once Upon a One More Time plays through January 9, 2022, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$190) are available for purchase online. Premium seating is also available for weekend performances. Special discounts are available for military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office at (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org for more information.

COVID Safety: Through the end of the run of Once Upon a One More Time, all patrons must provide proof of vaccination to attend any performances or events. In addition, COVID-19 vaccinations are required for all performers and theater staff. For full guidelines about providing proof of vaccination, visit the theater’s Health and Safety page. Only performers and people invited onstage for talkbacks may be unmasked. Venue attendees must remain masked, including during performances, unless eating and drinking in designated lobby areas.

SEE ALSO:
‘Once Upon a One More Time’ is wacky but it works (review by Nicole Hertvik)

CAST (in order of appearance)
Narrator: Michael McGrath
Little Girl: Adrianna Weir, Mila Weir (alternate in the role)
Original Fairy Godmother: Brooke Dillman
Snow White: Aisha Jackson
Sleeping Beauty: Ashley Chiu
Belle: Belinda Allyn
Rapunzel: Wonu Ogunfowora
Princess and the Pea: Morgan Weed
Little Mermaid: Lauren Zakrin
Gretel: Selene Haro
Little Red Riding Hood: Jennifer Florentino
Goldilocks: Amy Hillner Larsen
Cinderella: Briga Heelan
Stepmother: Emily Skinner
Belinda (stepsister): MiMi Scardulla
Betany (stepsister): Tess Soltau
Prince Charming: Justin Guarini
Clumsy/Prince Ebullient: Raymond J. Lee
Prince Erudite: Ryan Steele
Prince Suave: Stephen Brower
Prince Affable: Stephen Scott Wormley
Prince Brawny: Joshua Johnson
Prince Mischievous: Kevin Trinio Perdido
Swings: Salisha Thomas, Diana Vaden, Matt Allen, Matthew Tiberi

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great column. But I’m puzzled that you don’t mention Into the Woods, the dark musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, which preceded this, setting the stage for exploding the myth of fairy tale heroines living happily ever after.

    • What distinguishes Once Upon a One More Time is that the princesses organize: they unite and strike and then become authors of their own stories collectively. Cinderella, who might have opted for an individual solution, doesn’t; instead, she shares with the other princesses the liberatory insights she has learned. There’s a scene in Act Two where the princesses each have a quill and are seen composing together in a kind of writing club, which in context — given the tyranny of the massive quill that hangs overhead scripting their lives in Act One — becomes a kind of metaphor for “the personal is political.”

      • Thank you! Not having seen the show yet–my subscription is for the Wednesday matinee series, the first week of January–I was not aware of the collective activity. I really look forward to it!

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