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‘Mother Goose’ Makes a Case Against Nursery Crimes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dads and grads and blushing brides

hold sway in the month of June.

But for a time,

through verse and rhyme,

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an egghead king reigns o’er the afternoon.

*

Confidential to Mother Goose: If you think that was bad, the stuff that South Coast Repertory’s Young Conservatory Players have in store will really curl your tail feathers.

It’s “Mother Goose: On Trial!,” a one-act play by Dick Gjonola that skewers the Goose’s best-loved nursery rhymes in a format that relies as much on campy courtroom TV shows as it does on the original verses.

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Directed by SCR’s education director, Craig Fleming, and featuring 17 actors from the theater’s youth and adult actor-training programs, “Mother Goose” opens Saturday and continues through June 16 on SCR’s Second Stage.

YCP’s only public offering this season, “Mother Goose: On Trial!” finds the old girl up to her swan-like neck in lawsuits, defending herself in the Dreamland Supreme Court from the very characters she brought to life.

“Basically, it’s a case of the State against Mother Goose,” explains Fleming, who directed YCP’s successful production of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” last season. “The witnesses are all characters from her best known rhymes, and basically, they’re all pretty hostile.”

Libel is the issue here. From Humpty Dumpty to Little Jack Horner, the witnesses gripe that Mother Goose slandered their characters for her own literary gain. Goaded on by a crackerjack attorney, they’re out to set the record straight.

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But, as Gjonola’s script points out, these characters are not who they seem. Although it never has been determined who Mother Goose was, or if in fact she ever existed, the consensus is that many of the Mother Goose rhyme characters were allegories based on real people and events. In the play, through clever cross-examination, their “true” identities are revealed.

“The original rhymes were really written for children as a way to appreciate historical events and characters,” Fleming says. “The script demonstrates that the characters were simply metaphors to explain real circumstances.

“For example, Humpty Dumpty was based on King Richard III [of England], who reportedly fell off his horse, Wall, during the Battle of Bosworth,” an act that contributed to the fall of the House of York (the name Humpty Dumpty was inspired by Richard’s humpbacked silhouette).

Little Jack Horner (he of the plum-stained thumb) was one Thomas Horner, a 15th century gent who stole land (i.e., a plum) from Henry VIII by nabbing one of 12 deeds that his boss had baked into a pie to “kiss up to the king,” as Fleming puts it. Costume designer Dwight Richard Odle is eschewing most of the typical nursery-rhyme imagery for costumes that reflect the characters’ historical basis.

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But, as Fleming adds quickly, this show is no dry history lesson.

“It’s very irreverent,” he promises; he’d like the mood of this show (as well as the ticket sales) to rival the loopy “Stinky Cheese Man.” Hoping to attract preteen and even teenage audiences along with the little ones, he notes that Mary, Mary Quite Contrary will be a grunge rock star, and Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son a bongo-carrying beatnik.

But Fleming isn’t out for laughs at any cost. Despite the courtroom setting, there’s nary a mention of O.J. “I didn’t want,” he says, “to take any cheap shots.”

* What: “Mother Goose: On Trial!”

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* When: Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.; June 14 at 7:30 p.m.; June 15 at 4 and 7:30 p.m.; June 16 at 2 and 4 p.m.

* Where: The Second Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Bristol Street, drive north and turn right onto Town Center Drive.

* Wherewithal: $8 to $10; group discounts available. Parking: $6.

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* Where to call: (714) 957-4033.


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