Thursday, January 9, 2014

Peter and the panto tradition

As an American, my knowledge of the English pantomime tradition has been minimal and not first-hand until recently. And true to form, I became curious about it after learning about actors like Henry Winkler and David Hasselhoff playing Captain Hook in Christmas panto interpretations of Barrie's play.

Henry Winkler as the Captain

I was lucky enough to discover Seattle's own Fremont Players doing a panto of Dick Whittington and His Cat over the holidays, so I can now write this from the point of view of the initiated. I can understand why this is a popular holiday activity after taking part in the fun myself.

Pantomime has a strong foundation, arising from the tradition of commedia del'arte, which traveled from Italy to England in the 1600s. When Charles Dickens connected panto and Christmas in his writings, it became an expected part of the holidays for children in England and now beyond. Panto performances are traditionally loose versions of folk or fairy tales, with stock characters and scenes, contemporary references, and humor for all ages in the form of slapstick and double entendres. Popular actors from stage, film, and TV are a particular draw in larger theater productions, and have been since the late 1800s.

While panto becomes increasingly popular in the US, with a recent feature on CNN explaining it to the American audience, British critics debate its demise. Not all theater critics agree that this is imminent, or even close to occurring.

I couldn't find the premiere date of the first Peter Pan panto (I am not going to try to say that five times fast), but the only adaptation allowed by copyright until recently was the 1953 Disney film, so panto versions of it are fairly new. J.M. Barrie's original play doesn't incorporate many panto elements, although it does include audience participation (clapping to bring Tinker Bell back to life), and actors dressed as animals (Nana and the crocodile). Peter was originally played by a woman not because of a cross-dressing tradition, but because children weren't allowed to work in the theater past 10 pm. Nor does the original play include a cross-dressing Dame, naughty humor, singalong, slapstick,or a chorus. But all these have been easily added, even the Dame as a human nurse (as opposed to Nana the dog) or a female pirate.

Mermaids of the alarming variety

Broadway production Peter and the Starcatcher includes many panto elements--slapstick, a chorus, the cross-dressing Mrs. Bumbrake, double entendres and pop culture references, cultural satire--thereby tying the production to both Barrie's play and the panto tradition. (Starcatcher and Dick Whittington also both included a boat, a ship wreck, and a desert island--none of which I knew to expect in the latter, although I realize how unlikely that sounds in retrospect.)

The Fremont Players did a panto Peter Pan in 2011, but I"m glad I didn't discover them till Dick Whittington. I had no objection to shouting insults at the odious King Rat. But while I love a campy Captain Hook, I recoil at the thought of booing and hissing the poor man, or suffering the popcorn hurled in my direction if I cheer instead.

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