Sunday 27 November 2016

EastVan Panto Red Riding Hood seasonal silliness

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Refresher on panto's :  For the 4th year running, Theatre Replacement teams with the Cultch to do its annual EastVan Panto at the York on The Drive. You know the drill by now : the British tradition of pantomime is family entertainment that's a blend of music, dance, slapstick, robust audience participation, all about cheering the heroes, booing the villains -plus- some sing-along-y tunes, local political satire, and cross-dressing actors (always a prime key to revelry designed to lighten winter's dark). As well, panto's are based ever-so-loosely on a fairy tale -- this year two of them -- to give the seasonal show a storyline the kids down front can relate to. 

Set on home turf this year : The 'hood for Miss Hood is right outside the York Theatre on the bike path along Adanac St. starting up at the WISE Hall heading down toward the DTES. Grammy got a funky 3rd floor suite in Jim Green's Woodward's high-rise atop the late \ great $1.49 Day department store site. The skyline-famous W has been brought down to earth : it sits ceremoniously next to my favourite Gastown brewski drop-in The Cambie Hotel. Playwright and comic Mark Chavez teams with Director Anita Rochor to join the city's champion theatre rocker Veda Hille to create this year's silly seasonal organized chaos for all ages.

Stars of the first three York pantos Dawn Petten and Allan Zinyk move aside in 2016 for character actor Andrew McNee as the The Big Bad Wolf [TBBW] opposite Rachel Aberle as Red. Theatre Replacement co-founder James Long joins Chirag Naik as one of Red's co-Dads, but mostly carves out the cross-dresser role as Red's delightful, droll and lippy Grammy.

How it's all put together : Each of Brother Grimm's Little Red Riding Hood yarn and Englishman James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps' Three Little Pigs nursery rhyme feature a wolf as the carnivorous villain. So playwright Chavez & Co. decided, cleverly, to include both stories in their panto. The show spoofs Vancouver's smuggish bicycling community, the nexus of the DTES swap-meet / petty crime cultures & both Red and iPhone's Siri in their search for who their real selves are as seen through these fairy stories.

A cute aspect of the script is the riff on Johnny Valentine's infamous kids book about gay parents banned back in the day from Surrey school libraries called One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad -- until the Supreme Court of Canada struck down such silly censorship nonsense.* In the panto Red is the daughter of such a union. When the husbands mistakenly leave daughter behind as they head off to Daddy Daughter Gym Day, Red tests their prohibition that she is too young to have "crosswalk privileges" in Grandview-Woodlands that is her home and native land. 

Huh! she snits. I'll show youAnd promptly heads out on her shiny Schwinn to take Grammy a basket of farmer's market goodies plus some super hot sauce. But of course she needs the help of Siri and some fleshy folks, too, to get her there. "Who knows what danger lurks in the hearts of men?" the Shadow asked folks on radio in the Dirty 30's. And men wolves worst of all. Red learns this and more on her journey.

What the show brings to the stage : The strengths of Hood are many. One can probably never really overdose on Laura Zerebeski's scenic fly's depicting downtown Hastings Street or the innards of Red's home; or Grammy's flat; or the "Vancouver special" house placards; or the scrim showing us Wolf's tummy. Great visual fun all of this!

Match that with Costume Designer Marina Szijarto's ingenious and artful characters (among them JJ Bean coffee cup; Japadog; sushi; pizza slice &c. that occupy Wolf's stomach). Not to mention her delightful 3 pigs with their corpulent and rotund tushes. And what about the wildly ironic Grammy burlesque with the walker she needs to support her bosom.

Choreographer Tracey Power once more lives up to her name with some excellent bits featuring bicycle handles and single-front wheels dancing together; the vegematic bike-set commuters on Gregor's green lanes; the swappers scamming one another (tube-a-lube for a steam clock, anyone...?) on the streets of DTES.

Acting pin-spots : Anyone who doesn't fall on their keister laughing and rollicking in just about any Andrew McNee role on Vancouver stages needs to seek help. As both narrator Holiday Claus but particularly as TBBW McNee is a delight of exaggerated nonsense.

James Long as Grammy -- but also the more stuttered role as 2-Dad -- reveals a subtlety of comic nuance much appreciated. I have not seen his skills before. I shall seek them out again.

Chirag Naik continues to grow his craft with every outing and betrays a liketty-split sense of comic timing. For her part, Rachel Aberle can always be trusted to bring solid acting prowess to support her roles.  

Production values of note : Coupla take-aways from Sunday's show. Visually this production, as noted above, is an ocular feast both on the set side of the ledger and on costumes. Stupendous! 

Musically Veda Hille punches up cleverly each time out, no question, though I think this year not as aggressively as in previous years. Still, with her imaginative takes on everything from "Break My Stride" by Matthew Wilder to "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran to "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, Beyonce stuff, even Johnny Cash, Hille shows once more the encompassing breadth of her musical jones.

Who gonna like : The script overall had its moments of pure risibility but not quite as many adult / local political yukkisms I would have preferred. (No serial real estate quips. [Really? In 2016...?] One direct Gregor snigger, one oblique. A single Christie Clark reference -- to private school for her kid. [Who knew? Who cares?] A Georgia viaduct reference considered funny this many years since Hogan's Alley disappeared and Jimi Hendrix died?)

For kids, one hopes their parents schooled them in these two intertwining stories involving the TBBW character, else no question they'd be utterly lost on the storylines. We wondered on the way home : do Millennial parents even read these fairy tales to their kids anymore given the social media wasteland that's the norm of daily fare? Hard to know.

But. But. The above are grunts and grumps from a septuagenarian drama critic. Take them as that.

Meanwhile the visuals and the compleat choreography and the staging and acting prowess -- by not only the principals but the Studio 58 performers doing support cast roles -- all executed cleverly and effervescently. The result : this without reservation is Go to theatre! for families wanting joyful time together sharing the goofy charades and pantomimes of characters writ large in brilliant colour and voice. 

We loved being amidst all these little 2-legged critters yelling "Behind you!" and "Yes it is!" and "No it isn't!" and "Boooooo!" every time TBBW shows his fangs. Such fun no Netflix account can ever provide. Make this a Can't miss! tradition for your family for sure.

Particulars :  Produced by Replacement Theatre [Producer Corbin Murdoch] in collaboration with The Cultch.  At the York Theatre,  639 Commercial Drive, right next to Nick's old-time Italian pastapizzariaOn thru December 31st. Run-time some 100 minutes with intermission. Box office 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at the Cultch.

Production team :  Playwright Mark Chavez.  Director Anita Rochon.  Musical Director, Composer Veda Hille.  Choreographer Tracey Power.  Set & Poperties Designer Marshall McLahen.  Costume Designer & Sock Puppets Marina Szijarto.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Scenic Illustrator Laura Zerebeski.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn.  

Orchestra :  Veda Hille.  Barry Mirochnick.

Performers : Rachel Aberle.  James Long.  Andrew McNee.  Chirac Naik.  With Elizabeth Barrett.  Mason Temple.  Stephanie Wong. 

Panto Kids :  (Three per show, rotating.)  Era Bothe.  Maya Dance-Thomson.  Lola Dance-Thomson.  Yuki Enns.  Fumiko Enns.  Maxine Kassis.  Olive Knowles.  Quillan Koehn.  Nasja MacRae.  Felix MacDuff.  Nora Pontin.  Hazel Pontin.  Kiyo Roth.  Matteo Sallusti.  Cooper Thompson.

Addendum :  Scenic Illustrator Laura Zerebeski's jaw-dropping and brilliant visuals are described in the show program thus :

"Laura paints urban landscapes and personifies buildings to they look like the people who live in them. Her style combines surrealism and expressionism which is the result of a few decades of naive certainty followed by disillusionment and at least one fresh start after she left a corporate career to pursue art full time. She takes familiar urban scenes and re-imagines them with a bright mix of caricature and idealism. Laura believes that art should communicate a universal experience, which is somewhere between 'joyful' and 'resilient', and some days we all need a reminder of what that looks like."

Addendum #2 : With reference to Surrey School Board's banning the book One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dad at the insistence of the majority of trustees and supported by the district bureaucracy, I am put to mind of a favourite Mark Twain quote : "First the Lord made idiots. That was just for practice. Then he made school boards." Proof positive evidence right here.


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