By Philip Pearce
A NEW VERSION of the time-honored Robin Hood legend has just bounced into town. It’s the work of a Chicago based children and youth theater author named Michele L Vacca. I don’t know of her other scripts, but I’ll lay a shilling to a tanner Ms Vacca has at some point touched bases with the venerable British theatrical event known as the Holiday Pantomime.
“Panto” is the kind of theatrical treat Mary Poppins might have taken Jane and Michael Banks to see during their Christmas break from school, a popular family friendly stage event that harks back to eighteenth century London. Its producers take an old familiar story—Cinderella, Aladdin, Puss in Boots—cut the plot down to the bone and hire a cast of musical actors to use what’s left as a structure on which to hang bits of swoony romance, some familiar pop music hits, plenty of knockabout farce and a whole lot of comic overacting.
The Adventures of Robin Hood, which swashbuckled noisily onto the Morgan Stock Stage at MPC last weekend, is a pretty good example. Robin and his Merry Men are on hand to rob the rich and feed the poor; their benevolence is threatened by the dastardly and idiotic Sir Guy (pronounced “Gee” as in “Gee-orgeous“) Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin, Lady Marion and the Men get their bow-and-arrow revenge, Sir Guy gets his comeuppance and that’s about all the story anybody needs to know or care about.
What matters in any self-respecting panto is a lot of attractively costumed people racing all over the stage and auditorium at the slightest or no apparent provocation, hiding from each other behind shrubbery or inside furniture, taking on blatantly obvious disguises and battling one another with cardboard swords and cudgels. There have to be a succession of groaner jokes even your slow-witted cousin Claude from Peoria can understand. You need a leading couple nearly as pretty as Errol and Olivia to fall in love and sing about it . . . and they have to be opposed by a flamboyantly comic baddie (sometimes a man in drag) who is as ham-fistedly stupid as he or she is relentlessly hateful. No mental effort or subtext required. Good time had by all.
It works well at MPC, thanks for starters to Islam Omer’s athletic, witty and forceful Robin, a pre-super hero who can strike predictable derring-do poses in a way that makes them look fresh, sing and dance with the best of a well-trained cast, play the audience for laughs and applause and even manage to sound something like an actual Englishman.
Cast opposite him, full of grace and a lot of feminist grit, is the always endearing Gracie Balistreri, whose Maid Marion briefly evades the nasty Sheriff’s clutches by fleeing to Sherwood Forest in a leggy male disguise I don’t recall from any of the movie versions but recognize as Ms Vacca’s passing homage to Shakespeare’s Rosalind.
Born and reared to play Robin’s pompous, tax collecting nemesis the Sheriff, D Scott McQuiston roars around snatching anything from your shoes to your grandchildren on behalf of a King Richard Lionheart, who’s left him in charge of royal taxes while he’s off torturing infidels in the Holy Land. True to panto tradition, McQuiston’s periwigged pomposity, bloodthirsty plotting and evil hyena chortle are comic high points of the evening.
If the production has a weakness, it’s that it builds up a nice, warm cast/audience rapport when it’s acting out the story, and then weakens that link every time the music starts. Three dance sequences are executed with impressive zip and commitment, but they intervene suddenly with no connection to the send-up comedy and spoof dramatics we’ve been watching. With the exception of a fairly relevant county fair dance at the beginning of Act 2, the dance numbers look and sound so much alike they become indistinguishable. Everything just stops while everybody on stage dances to a bubbly but predictable music tape full of lyrics no one responds to, let alone lip-syncs.
Here in Monterey, as in a production of 42nd Street I’d just seen at the London theater that launched British pantomime more than three centuries ago, I was struck by the unity, commitment and discipline needed to keep this kind of show looking spontaneous. Director Laura Coté’s cast of about 25 young and supple players scarcely stop to catch a breath before the next far-fetched event confronts them with yet another strenuous plot crisis. They respond with the enthusiasm of an ensemble who know each other well and like performing together.
The Adventures of Robin Hood continues through May 6th.
Photo Credit: Eric Gruss