Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Beasts have a kiki

Jill Rogati, Christopher Nourse and Kiki Samko listen up.
If you haven't heard, the Beasts are back - the Imaginary Beasts, that is, and "back" with their annual winter panto, this time (loosely) based on Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (through this weekend only at the BCA).

What's a "panto," you may ask?  (Sigh. You're so out of it. I suppose next you'll ask me what a kiki is!)  A panto is a charming British mode of children's theatre, in which a favorite tale or nursery rhyme is sweetly scrambled by a laundry list of tongue-in-cheek performance traditions. These include cross-dressing heroes and heroines, silly dance numbers, call-and-response routines, booing and hissing (of course!), a panto-load of slapstick, as well as a very mild dose of innuendo for the grown-ups.

In short - what's not to like?  And Head Beast Matthew Woods is obviously devoted to the panto (he climbs up onstage as the villain every year - this time he's all but unrecognizable in beaver-sized buck teeth); what's more, in crafty costumer Cotton Talbot-Minkin he has found a kindred spirit who conjures perfectly the Arthur Rackham/Maxfield Parrish "look" that grounds the form.  

And after several years of putting on these daft extravaganzas, the Beasts have pulled together a band of veterans who know just what they're doing.  The whole troupe is amusing, but special shout-outs this year have to go to Jill Rogati's shapely Ichabod Crane, Joey Pelletier's irrepressible "Dame Vivian Van Winkle" (whose rendition of "Tiptoe through the Tulips" is a highlight), Kiki Samko's super-spoiled Katrina van Tassel, and the reliable Michael Underhill's "rollicking, roaring, roistering" Brom Bones.

To be honest, this show is probably best enjoyed with kids (who "get" the panto form in some deep way); it also helps if you're tickled by shouting things like "Look out behind you!!" at the stage.  In this year's edition, I was most struck by the occasional shadow-play, and wanted more of it (I dream of the day the Beasts break out into a larger budget, as their whimsical design skills seem to know no limit).  I was less taken by this year's pop number, the Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have a Kiki," which I know sounds like a great choice, but didn't seem to conjure anything too kicky.  On the upside, the action was in general a little tighter than I remembered from last winter, so the adults didn't get restless (for some reason the kids never do).  Not that I'm complaining.  Something about the wacky whimsy of the panto form has seduced me too; seeing any of them for me is like having a kiki.

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