Monday, November 30, 2009
Theater review: Puss in Boots
Puss in Boots is an appropriate show for children but adult enough to bring the parents.
British panto in Dallas – what a fun and wonderful addition this form of theater is to the Christmas holiday season. Having seen panto in London, I looked forward to Theatre Britain's newest offering, Puss in Boots (now playing at the KD Studio Theatre in Dallas). It brought back to me those memories and the hilarity of traditional pantomime.
Panto is an old style of theatre using children's stories, usually a fairy tale, and comprised of slapstick comedy, bad jokes, risqué double entendres, audience participation and classic characters that return show after show to the delight of children and adults alike.
There is always the cross-dressing Dame; in history it was usually the current favorite comedian. Drawings and photos from the late 1800s and later picture Dames with overdone eyes and eyebrows, tremendous bosoms or posteriors; they are the comic buffoons of the play.
The Principal Boy is a male lead played by a young woman. Principal Boys, while still female, are costumed to look like the young heroes they portray. The Villain is always to be booed and hissed and The Ghost turns up somewhere in the play. It's up to the audience to warn the characters of its whereabouts.
All those elements were in place with Theatre Britain's Puss in Boots. This fairy tale has the conventional plot. The miller has died and left property to his three sons – the eldest got the house, the second got an ass and the youngest, well he got an old cat aka Puss. Through cunning and trickery, Puss manages to fool the king and the village into believing his master to be a duke who then wins the heart of the princess and the castle formerly owned by the mean old ogre.
Theatre Britain's production opened with song and dance by kittens, a rabbit and one enterprising cat. Puss guided us into the ways of audience participation and we even had a song-off between genders. The ladies won as is only right! The panto play was going well, using all the tricks, when it was time for the Dame, in this case Nanny Knickers. She arrived with a Telly Tubby ring of heightened hair, emphasized breasts and rotund undergarment.
However, after the initial laughter died down, the play came to a rapid deceleration. The dialogue was slow, the song was slower and Nanny Knickers' comic buffoonery did not align with her exaggerated looks.
Collin, the Principal Boy in Puss in Boots, was a mystery. The purpose of having young women portray men was to allow repressed Victorian men a good look at youthful legs. The actress, however, needed to have some appearance of a boy and Collin did not. Fishnet stockings and high heels did not represent a man enough to make any romance between him and the princess remotely plausible.
The script by Jackie Mellor-Guin was not able to hold the story line between all the stops and starts of sing a longs and audience participation. Actors struggled to revive the fairy tale each time. I do understand the idea of panto is for audiences to join in and that the play, for once, is not the thing. But a fairy tale should be easy to follow and this one left us lost. Some of the difficulty also lay in the staging. Several of Nanny Knickers' laughs were played directly upstage so that we never heard them. Dances were choreographed facing upstage, conversations turned away and even asides were given with back to the audience.
With the exception of Puss, the actors didn't seem confident with the material yet. Most of the bawdy lines were spoken quickly and quietly. The double entendres needed to be broad so that while the children were laughing at the physical antics, the adults could laugh at the bawdy jokes. I don't believe Theatre Britain was afraid to offend. Dallas has had a huge support base for British comedy on television since the '70s. It was opening night so I feel the actors will grow into the broadness and allow the comedy to flow freely.
Puss in Boots is still though a pleasant show to watch. Darryl Clement designed a colorful page-turning storybook as the set.
A black light underwater scene with puppet fish was an unexpected delight. Lighting Designer Adam Hughes transformed sunny country fields into a haunted forest and back again with ease.
Tory Padden and SkyRidge Designs made appropriate fairy tale costumes with crowns, gowns, and peasantry. I particularly enjoyed the four cats' headdress and paws. Wig & Hair Designer Don Hall used his imagination and a lot of shellac for Nanny Knickers' hair and adorned the princess in lovely ringlets.
Five of the ten actors in Puss in Boots play a variety of characters or are puppeteers. Some of the highlights included Charli Armstrong, Christina Neubrand and Becca Shivers as the mischievous kittens, Riff, Raff and Rough. They made a great trio and their choreography, comic timing and stage chemistry clearly paid off making them one of the more memorable parts of the play.
Mark Shum as the loud and proud Nanny pranced and danced his way through with aplomb. Although I so wished he had let loose and taken his role much further.
The absolute hit of the production was Ivan Jones as Philippe Ulysses Samson Studly Man the 1st or Puss. From the minute he came onstage and curled under his master's leg, meowing lazily, he held the audience firmly in his paw. Though we were a bit slow to respond, Jones soon had us shouting out the duke's name each time it was uttered, yelling warnings to the characters, singing and booing as good panto audiences should. He pirouetted, flipped, did cartwheels and tumbled with ease and had an instant rapport with the audience. Jones understood the true heart of panto, and as the saying goes, he was worth the price of admission.
Puss in Boots is an appropriate show for children but adult enough to bring the parents. It's a good alternative to all the Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers out there. A funny aside – Theatre Britain won a Dallas Observer Award for Best Intermission Edibles. The concession stand holds candy and crisps directly from Britain, making this sweet night of theatre even sweeter.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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