royal pain

Jackie Hoffman and John Epperson face off in “Once Upon a Mattress.”
forty-second street, saturday afternoon: a costume fitting. In one
corner of a rehearsal studio, the perpetually grouchy character actress Jackie Hoffman
practiced running up and down a staircase in a flowing turquoise dress. In another, John
Epperson, best known for his ferocious drag alter ego, Lypsinka, was choosing among
bejewelled crowns. “How ironic,” Hoffman said, examining her duds. “ ‘Fiddler,’ where
they’re supposed to look poor, has a budget of probably forty million. We’re supposed to
look rich, and we have a budget of twelve dollars.”
With any luck, Transport Group’s revival of “Once Upon a Mattress” (at Abrons
Arts Center, through Jan. 3) will tap the same level of drollery. The 1959 Mary Rodgers
musical, which retells the story of the princess and the pea, was once a vehicle for Carol
Burnett. Now, in an inspired double feat of stunt casting, it will star two of downtown’s
prickliest divas: Hoffman, late of “On the Town,” as Princess Winnifred, the
loudmouthed bachelorette (her big number is “Shy”), and Epperson, as the evil Queen
Aggravain, who plots her demise.
The whole thing, Epperson explained, was his idea. As a boy, he saw Carol Burnett
in the 1964 television version, and later acted in a college production as a character
named Sir Studley (“which was very cruel of the director”). He eventually realized that he
wanted to play the queen, and in 2013 he and Hoffman performed a staged reading for a
benefit, which Mary Rodgers attended. She died the next summer, but not before telling
Epperson that she hoped for a full production.
Of her first princess role, Hoffman said, “At first, I was amazed at how ill suited I
seemed to it”—she’s typically cast as the sourpuss second banana—but she promised
“that special brand of Jackie Hoffman misery.” She was now in a dainty pair of pajamas.
Epperson strutted out in a regal red-velvet gown. Hoffman eyed him and said, “It’ll be a
fight for focus.”
—Michael Schulman


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