By Shawn Conner

December 14, 2016
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Beauty and the Beast panto offers tradition, and a hint of the modern

Sleeping Beauty

Ellie King’s Beauty and the Beast

The panto fever that has hit Vancouver in recent years continues. This holiday season, no fewer than three versions of the traditional British entertainments are playing in Metro Vancouver. One of these is The Royal Canadian Theatre Company’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.

Certain conditions apply, however, before something can be considered an authentic, British panto. “Real British panto holds within it the old method of breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, inviting audience interaction,” said Ellie King, artistic director of the Surrey company, as well as writer/director of the upcoming production.

A panto also needs a pair of lovers, and “a villain who wants to prevent them from getting together,” King said. “You have the hero or heroine who has to undertake both a spiritual and very often a physical journey, from a position of poverty to a position of gain. On the way, harking back to medieval morality plays, you have forces of evil and good fighting over the destiny of the protagonist.” In the tale, a young woman volunteers to help her destitute merchant father by working at the castle of the hideous Beast. Similarities to what is probably the best-known version of the story, Disney’s 1991 animated film, end there, more or less. Instead, King draws on the 18th-century tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Challenges in adapting the story to the panto form included fitting everything into a digestible length. We work very hard to bring our plays in under two hours,” she said. This is done both for the sake of the younger audience members, as well as adults with attention spans not adapted to three to four hours, the lengths to which pantos could run a century ago.

Besides story motifs, pantos have stock roles. For King’s Beauty and the Beast, the Idle Jack — whose role is to interact with the kids in the audience — is played by Stephen Elcheshen. Alan Cedargreen plays the Dame (here, named Frau Schackenbacken), a panto role traditionally performed by a man in a dress — though “it’s not a drag act,” said King. “It’s very different.” Like King, Cedargreen grew up in England knowing panto. “There’s a style of playing real panto that you need to know, I can’t put it into words — it’s an intangible. And he has that,” said King.

The main villain is played by Kerri Norris who, like Cedargreen, is a longtime player with the Royal Canadian Theatre Company. Norris is also the company’s costumer. Good and evil are represented by the fairy and the demon. “They’re the motivators,” King said. This year the demon is her son, James King; the fairy queen is played by Jacqueline Koenig. Crystal Weltzin plays the Beauty, Isabella. Jacqueline Bruce plays the Beast, who fills the panto role of Principal Boy, representing the personification of pure romantic love. In a tradition dating to the 18th century, Bruce wears tights — fishnet — and high heels. “Instead of a monstrous beast, we’re using a very stylized, elegant beast,” King said.

The panto begins with a prologue to explain how the Beast came to be the Beast — while hunting in the forest, he is very rude to a witch, who causes the transformation. “So he kind of looks like a stag that he might have been hunting. I really like that idea — it’s very elegant, but still not human.” Along with fairy-tale elements, this Beauty and the Beast contains references to contemporary events. “That tradition dates from the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, when a lot of East End of London musical turns were invited to come and join panto,” King said. “They used it as a platform to air their social ills and grievances. We do that too, though we’re not as serious about it. Obviously, Trump is in there. We try to be even-handed and hit on all major parties equally, but there are some targets you’ve just got to hit.”

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