Friday, January 17, 2014

The Beasts give Rumpelstiltskin a spin

William Schuller and Michael Underhill do do that voodoo in Rumpelstiltskin.

You could argue that Matthew Woods' Imaginary Beasts never stray far from the precincts of childhood - even when they're working at their highest intellectual pitch.

But in their annual winter "pantos," they dive right in and produce children's theatre, straight up - although in a knowing, double-edged style. For the British panto tradition is a kind of car crash of the simple and sophisticated; on one level it's about silliness in a very deep way (a perennial Brit obsession!) - on another, it's just plain silly. Gender-bent questions of identity and sneaky double entendres always float just beneath the innocent surface of a panto - but also (don't worry) well above the heads of its target audience. The results reliably amuse adults, and all but fascinate kids, particularly the first and second grade set.  

Why this crowd should feel that boys playing girls (and girls playing boys) should be the most natural thing in the world is, I think, a conundrum for the developmental psychologists to solve. I'm just here to say that pantos are a good time, and we're lucky that Matthew Woods is so devoted to them (and to every detail of their performance tradition).

This year's model is Rumpelstiltskin, or All That Glitters - although it's only marginally related to the brief fairy tale of the same name (whose eponymous, malevolent elf is played by Woods himself with wicked glee). For every folk tale that gets the panto treatment winds up a shaggy dog story - actually a complicated game of narrative chutes-and-ladders, studded with intentionally bad rhymes, bouts of audience participation, and even a few pop songs, both old and new (this year, we heard the theme from Goldfinger along with a hilariously direct quotation of  "What Does the Fox Say?").

As usual, vocals are perhaps the Beasts' weak point - and the set struck me as looking recycled (oh well). But everything else comes together nicely, and all-in-all, Rumpelstiltskin may be the troupe's tightest panto yet. As ever, the cast hams it up with wide-eyed aplomb, and the "Cotton Talbot-Minkin originals" they're sporting are fanciful delights (they suggest Maxfield Parrish with a dash of millennial whimsy). Panto perennial Joey Pelletier once more stole the show as Dame Gilda Lilly, although veteran Beasts Cameron Cronin and Beth Pearson gave him a spirited run for his money. Meanwhile Kiki Samko made a strapping Prince Florin, while panto neophytes Noah Simes and especially Sarah Gazdowicz impressed as Mrs. Curdle (a seeming bass-baritone) and her sweetly shy daughter Myrtle. Two more newcomers, Bryan Bernfeld and Caroline Rose Markham, seemed to play things a bit too subtly at first, but both, particularly Markham, eventually found their feet (or rather boots).

Then, of course, there was Mikey DiLoreto, Molly Kimmerling, and Amy Meyer, as the "Weird Sisters," who seemed to have wandered in from the Scottish tragedy by way of the Three Stooges.  You couldn't call them too subtle - not ever.  But who needs subtle when you've got a glass eye, a wooden noggin, and a fright wig the size of a wrecking ball? Not the kids who screamed their approval of Rumpelstiltskin, I can tell you that much.

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