The panto — short for pantomime — is a uniquely British holiday theater tradition, where grown-ups and children of all ages gather for a lively, boisterous production that not only encourages audience participation, but requires it. The show, usually inspired by a well-known fairy tale, combines slapstick and comic melodrama, and features audiences yelling, booing and clamoring for candy thrown from the stage.
With the world premiere of “Sleeping Beauty (An American Panto),” running Friday through Feb. 14 at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, co-directors Jon Greene and Maxwell Williams hope to bring the madcap spirit of panto to Carnival season in New Orleans.
“When I got to New Orleans, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect city for a show where people wear giant costumes, there’s all this ribaldry and silliness, and kings and queens,” said Greene, who adapted the story of “Sleeping Beauty” for this panto production.
With “Sleeping Beauty,” Greene wanted to turn the conventional fairy tale on its head, making the passed-out princess more than just an inanimate object of desire.
“It looks like a typical ‘prince saves princess, defeats the evil witch’ kind of fairy tale, but there’s a lot of lovely subversion,” Greene said. “We set up a situation where Princess Calliope, the sleeping beauty, says, ‘No, you can’t kiss me! Stop trying to kiss me all the time!’ ”
In this updated fairy tale, Prince Stewart (played by Rahim Glaspy) is on a mission to find his royal calling, when he hears about a princess (Jessica Lozano) in need of kissing. Along the way, the pair do battle with the evil witch Malifica and her sidekick Manfred (Mary Pauley and Alex Smith), and receive guidance from the old widow Chockablock (Bob Edes, Jr.), the show’s narrator, Dudley J. Storyteller (Keith Claverie), and a giant talking frog (Andrew Vaught).
Like a traditional panto, Greene’s adaptation aims for broad, kid-friendly humor layered with lots of subtle winks and nods for the adults, while also keeping a moral message intact (a thematic element held over from the puritanical Victorian era). At the same time, he has added a few touches intended to make the style more familiar to American audiences.
“We’re very clear about calling it ‘An American Panto’ because it does have more American sensibilities in terms of some of the gags, some of the jokes,” Greene said. “There’s an element that’s a little less British musical and a little more like Roadrunner and Wily E. Coyote, more like American cartoon behavior.”
One concern about adapting the British tradition for American audiences is teaching theatergoers the rules of the form. While audiences across the pond inherently know when to shout and what to yell, new audiences will need be taught, which is why the show opens with a “panto starter kit,” that lets people know it’s perfectly acceptable to hoot and holler during the performance.
Greene’s co-director, Williams, is Le Petit’s new artistic director, and he’s excited about the opportunity to invite children and families to the theater, especially since the loss of Le Petit’s “Children’s Corner” stage during renovations in 2012.
“One of the things that I’ve been struck by here is that for a lot of people who love the theater, the reason is that they came here as small children,” Williams said. “They were first introduced to theater at Le Petit, and when they had children they brought their children to Le Petit, and it’s clear to me that we need to find a way to fold that into what’s happening on the main stage.”