Thursday, January 19, 2012

A rhyme for all reasons

The Imaginary Beasts bring the British panto to American shores.
Local impresario Matthew Woods has been producing his "pantos" (that's short for "pantomime," although "pantos" are far from silent) up on the North Shore for years, but Boston is only now getting a taste of his whimsical take on this cherished British tradition in The Half-Baked and Hard-to-Swallow History of Humpty Dumpty, or One Egg is Enough, which Woods's Imaginary Beasts are presenting at the BCA through February 4.

What is a panto, you may ask?  And should you see one?  Well, the answer to the second question is definitely "Yes - particularly if you own, or are renting, children from ages 4 to 7, or even older if they still believe in Santa."  The answer to the first query is a little more complicated.  A "panto" is an exuberantly foolish piece of nonsense in which much of what you'd find in American vaudeville or even burlesque is benignly applied to glosses on fairy tales and Mother Goose.  Think commedia crossed with Lewis Carroll and you've got roughly the idea.

But a panto obeys its own unique set of dramatic rules - which you get the impression Mr. Woods is quite devoted to (although he's happy enough to update his routines with the likes of Lady Gaga).  The dialogue is mostly rhymed couplets √† la Ms. Goose, for instance, and gender is always reversed for specific roles: the male heroes are played by women, the dowagers by men.  There are also standard call-and-response sequences which must appear, and which give pantos much of their structure and shape.  These include the hallowed 'Oh no, it isn't/Oh yes it IS" smack-down, lots of booing and hissing for the villains, the occasional sympathetic "A-wwww!" for the hero, and especially the delicious "Look out behind you!!!" whenever big spiders, wizards, dragons, etc., approach on tip-toe from the wings.

Now I have no idea why this odd formula works as well as it does; but you should know that the kids at last Saturday's matinee were transfixed by this silly souffl√© for something like two-and-a-half-hours.  And I mean riveted. Hypnotized.  Quiet as mice, saucer-eyed, waiting patiently for their cues, understanding in some deep way that here at last was a piece of theatre pitched at precisely their level, with no extraneous civics lessons besides the old ones about loyalty, honesty and pluck.

The adults were maybe a little less absorbed, to be honest. A panto is supposed to be a shaggy-dog story, but this one struck me as shaggy indeed; a good twenty minutes could be trimmed.  But frankly, that's not what any of the six-year-olds in attendance would have said; I fully believe the kids in that crowd could have watched the show for another hour.  And I can't pretend I didn't have a pretty good time. Indeed, I was simply happy to be introduced to a new platoon of lively, game young actors who approached all this square silliness with the utmost seriousness; the entire cast was strong, but I was particularly struck by newcomers Mauro Canepa, Denise Drago, Sam Eckmann, Derek Fraser, Molly Kimmerling, Christopher Nourse, Jesse Wood and Jill Rogati, who made a daringly weird, but eventually endearing, Humpty Dumpty.  Woods himself stole scene after scene, preening in a deliriously fey get-up as Old Icicle, who was determined to bring down a permanent winter upon us all. But then everyone got a great get-up in this show: Woods' secret weapon is costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin, who once again produced a fleet of delightfully fanciful ensembles that seemed to channel both Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham.  The whole thing was endearing and sweet, and you can't go wrong with bringing the kids, trust me.  My guess is that Woods's pantos may quickly become a new Hub tradition; why not be there at the start of it?

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