December 01, 2010

Pantomime offers escape to land of silly surprises

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you are in the mood for grim tragedy, elegant plot progression or even subtle character development (and who isn't, sometimes), you should resist the urge to attend the current production at Century Church Theatre in Hillsburgh.

But (one of my favourite words), if you fancy a little escape to a land of heroes in peril, bad guys being like totally bad, buffoons falling down, cross-dressers cavorting, stunning surprises, silly songs, cunning disguises, men in tights and contrived happy endings, then come on down, or up, whichever you prefer.

The advice should be taken as biased, since I am in the cast of the pantomime Babes in the Wood, written by Bev Nicholas and directed by Martyn Worsnop, which takes a few liberties with the tale of Robin Hood. I play good King Richard, coming back from the Crusades to restore order at the bottom of page 42, kiss Maid Marion on page 45 and join the finale on page 48.

It is a small part, suitably proportioned to my available time and acting ability. Although I studied theatre at university, I didn't have the confidence to pursue it as a career and the newspaper business offered better prospects for steady pay. Now after thirty years, my involvement with drama normally extends only to the low-stress role of usher.

The Century Church panto has become a popular pre-Christmas tradition over the past six years. Shows continue this Friday night through Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available at local library branches or through the box office at 519-855-4586.

In preparation for my part I did a bit of research, though I use the term loosely since Wikipedia was involved. It seems Richard the Lionheart, crowned in 1189, does not meet today's high standards for a good leader of England.

He imposed a crippling tax to finance his war against the Muslims. He sold off public posts, like that of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Like most of the ruling class, he spoke only French, and during his ten-year reign spent only six months on English soil.

Though he was a skilled military commander, he failed to capture Jerusalem and was himself captured by his Christian enemies. His subjects were taxed again to raise the ransom, 65,000 pounds of silver, more than twice the Crown's annual income at the time.

For more in-depth research, I watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the Mel Brooks spoof on the legend. At the end, I was surprised to see Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek) playing the part of King Richard, reciting some of the same lines I had just learned. Borrowing is an important part of the panto tradition.

Some of the silly comedy that we see on-screen today has its roots in British pantomime, a family entertainment that evolved in the 19th century. It grew out of "Commedia dell’arte", a type of street theatre which came from Italy in the 16th century, featuring music, dance, buffoonery and set character types.

Pantomimes always have a melodramatic villain, a principal boy hero (played by a female) and a flamboyant dame (played by a male). The humour is a little on the saucy side, but never too rude for children in the audience.

Children are an important part of the cast, in this case as villagers, or merry men (and women). Getting kids involved in drama is a huge benefit for them. They learn how to have fun in a very disciplined way, helping create something of value. They have others counting on them to do their best, to make the show work.

They feel what it is like to take a good risk, to make mistakes and carry on, to make allowance for other people's mistakes, to be vulnerable with everybody looking at you and to discover that fear can be channelled into positive energy. After all, as Shakespeare reminds us in As You Like It, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."

I am always amazed that shows come together as well as they do, considering the complexity of the undertaking – so many personalities, so many other commitments, so many lines and lyrics. It takes dedicated leadership, a network of folks hooked on the theatre lifestyle, a supportive community and the synergy created by "amateur" enterprise, that is, doing it for love instead of money.