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Once upon a play: drama’s expansive spring production

Bren Belmonte
Sophia Sanchez (10) performing “Shy”, the song focused on her character.
This article contains spoilers for the plot of “Once Upon a Mattress”

   On April 20 and 21, three showings of the Gabrielino High School Drama Department’s “Once Upon a Mattress” were performed in the Goodson Theater. The opening show took place at 7:00 on April 20, with two more shows at 3:00 and 7:00 p.m during the next day.

  It was the largest production by the drama department since the pandemic, with over 50 cast members including high school repertory players, middle schoolers, and elementary students. 

  A live orchestra consisting of Gabrielino students also performed, performing a few songs throughout the play’s runtime. Esther Minwary, orchestra director at Jefferson Middle School conducted on Saturday, while Melissa Romero, orchestra and band director at Gabrielino conducted on Sunday.

   A small Renaissance Fair was held outside the theater 30 minutes before each show, consisting of a central tent that handed out play shields, crowns, and swords with a few assorted games. This allowed a few additional Gabrielino students to volunteer, running the activities and ushering people into the theater. Members of the JMS orchestra were also present before the show, performing under the small stage in the quad. 

…I want to make this the biggest production that we’ve ever had, and I want it to be a spectacle and I want to grow our audience.

— Bobby Hundley

   The live orchestra played in the bottom two rows of the Goodson Theater as a pit orchestra, with the additional touch that they were supposed to represent the castle’s moat. Each member wore a headband representing a different marine creature. 

   Bobby Hundley, Drama Director at Gabrielino, explains the grand vision for this production. Hundley had been working with Samantha Theisen, VAPA director, for months to bring in the whole district.

   “So when I came in I told Samatha as well as Principal Lopez, you know I want to make this the biggest production that we’ve ever had, and I want it to be a spectacle and I want to grow our audience,” he stated. 

   The Production Technology Class, which changed from Stagecraft this year, created an immense, elaborate set for the play. It included multiple landings for a balcony and throne room a rotating cylinder on the side, switching from a tower to a dungeon, and finally a stack of 20 mattresses for the last scene in the play.

   Senior Christian Lecuona took the class for the first time this year, but with a background in construction, took a lead on production.

   “For the [rotating] dungeon, we had to make a base with rotating wheels, after that installed a flexible wood […] for the dungeon and the mattress we had to install extra supports,” he said. “Some of us stayed after 5 […] we asked if we could come during spring break to make it look nice, and we came in during weekends.”

   Students in Production Technology also dealt with sound and lighting and could be seen running the lighting and sound above the Goodson Theater with Ruben Arteaga, Production/ Technology director, a trend likely to continue in the future.

   These technical components came together in “tech week”, a week of calibration and rehearsals that gave everyone involved immense stress. 

   Sophomore Jayden Phung described, “In the two weeks before the opening night […] that’s when we go on the stage and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse everything […] and 3 days into tech week it’s shaping up.”

   For Senior Keen Lai, this was his first production, and he played the starring role of Prince Dauntless. Days before the play, he found himself anxious and unsure.

   “I didn’t even think at this point it was a possibility [to be the main character],” he commented. “I really tried my best and tried to step it up and I tried to be what people were expecting […] but its been hard.”

Keem Lai (12) performs in the opening scene of the play. (Bren Belmonte)

   Lai’s character is a quirky, sheltered prince, who finally comes into his own throughout the play. He keeps trying to find a princess he can make his bride, but his mother Queen Aggravian, played by Senior Teresa Wong, continually shoots down the princesses who approach him.

   Lai continued “He doesn’t know much about the world beyond the kingdom. There’s actually a part in the play where my dad, the king, has to teach me how babies are made.”

   Once Upon a Mattress follows what happens to the 13th princess who comes to marry Prince Dauntless. Driving the plot is that no one else in the kingdom can get married until Dauntless does, under the firm and draconian order of Aggravian. 

   This is Wong’s last production after appearing in 3 of the Drama Department’s previous productions: “Microwave in the Cafeteria”, “Myth-o-logues”, and “I Hate Shakespeare”.

   Aggravian is a “helicopter parent”, and when the 13th princess, Winnifred played by sophomore Sophia Sanchez, arrives, the queen is horrifed even as a romance builds between Dauntless and Winnifred. Thus with her aide the Wizard, played by sophomore Amy Diep, Aggravin devises the titular setpiece the play ends on. 

The Amy Diep (10) consults with Teresa Wong (12). (Bren Belmonte)

   “I’m basically the antagonist but [Hundley] wanted me to sympathize the character, humanize her,” Wong stated. 

   Sophia has had significant experience performing in drama, including productions outside of Gabrielino, but this is the first time she’s had a starring role. Like Lai, she wasn’t expecting a main character role.

   “I ended up missing the audition for [Winnifred],” Sophia said, “[Hundley] already had a role in mind for me, and I guess that one didn’t work out. He said how about this, try Winnifred’s song, and the next day I got an email saying they wanted me for the role.”

   Compared to Dauntless, Winnifred is strong and bold, rejecting the norms placed on her by the kingdom and Aggravin.

   Lady Larken and Prince Harry, played by Athena Justinich from JMS and Freshman Kevin Perry respectively, form another key duo in the play. Prince Harry is the one who brings Winnifred to the castle, and the rest of the play focuses on the complexities of their relationship.

Athena Justinich (7) and Kevin Perry (9) singing “Many Moons Ago”. (Bren Belmonte)

   Rounding out the main roles is King Sextimus, played by junior Brandon Torres-Thai, and his entourage the bard, played by junior YiMing (Emily) Wang, and the jester, played by freshman Juliette Cordero. Sextimus is almost entirely silent, leading to Torres-Thai acting entirely through sign language and comedic movements.

   “Well, I really like using my body language to speak,” Torres-Thai explained, “[The King] is cursed by a witch to not speak.”

   The rest of the cast occupied minor roles that featured heavily in several, bombastic musical numbers. That proved a challenge for sophomore Phung, who is in his first production as Sir Luce. He initially felt unready to sing in the musical, working with Rober Cartwright, current Choir director at Gabrielino before auditions.

   “Yah, I’m going to audition, and then I realized I can’t sing,” said Phung, “To prepare myself to audition, I asked [a friend] and Mr. Cartwright to get me into reasonable shape.”

   Finally, the children’s ensemble consisted of elementary students across the district. This was a major addition by Hundley, as children featured heavily in the intro and some musical numbers throughout the show.

Emily (YiMing) Wang during the openning ballad. (Bren Belmonte)

   “Typically the opening number is just done by ballet dancers […] and I wanted a really fun way to bring in the audience,” Hundley commented, “

   The scale of the production was unprecedented for the drama department.

   Senior Michelle Hua, stage manager,  stated, “We’re working with so many departments within VAPA, we’re working with Production Tech, the music department, and we also have the youth ensemble.”

   Only in her first year in drama, Hua described herself as the “link between the cast and crew”. In addition to helping with cues and lines on stage, communication has taken center stage.

   Junior Gabriela Sanchez, Assistant Director, described, “Before it’s been pretty consistently the same people are in the plays, but this year we have those same people [..] and a whole bunch of other people who have joined drama this year.”

   However, Hundley and the backstage crew worked tirelessly to keep things moving smoothly, and despite the size, progress on the play ran well.

   “It’s been kind of hectic but a lot of fun.”, Gabriela remarked.

   Once Upon a Mattress was the play J. C. Gafford had planned for the drama department to put on in the Spring before his passing early last year. Gafford planned to show it in 2020, but COVID-19 complicated the production so it was only scheduled this year.

   Despite no production in the fall, the drama department has moved forward with significant momentum throughout the spring. During Gabrielino’s open house, 100 people were crammed into Blackbox theater in E170, a record amount coming to see a 15-minute preview of the show.

   “The reason for Once Upon a Mattress is J. C. Gafford,” Hundley said, “I kind of wanted to keep that on the boards as a tribute to him and it’s a great show.”

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About the Contributors
Isaac Chan
Isaac Chan, Staff Writer
Isaac Chan is in his first year with the school's journalism team. Outside of journalism, Isaac is an avid fan of video games, with particular fondness for Kirby, Mario, Zelda, and the Persona series—which he is always eager to discuss. Despite his penchant for gaming, Isaac is no stranger to hard work and often finds himself immersed in the challenges of overcommitting. He is particularly interested in politics and views journalism as an ideal platform to address and discuss pressing issues at Gab.
Bren Belmonte
Bren Belmonte, Staff Writer
Bren Belmonte is a Photographer and Staff Writer with three years of experience on our newspaper team. Outside of journalism, Bren enjoys cosplaying, photographing friends, reading manga, watching anime, and listening to music. Bren chose the journalism class in sophomore year after encouragement from family members in the industry. Since then, they've recognized it as a future passion and career interest.
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