Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2004
Before I departed for Spencertown to see the 5th annual British-American Panto Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men, my husband sat me down and said, “Explain this Panto to me.” He was having a hard time with the fact that, while it is called a pantomime, no one on the stage keeps quiet. I suppose that is why the British have shortened the name to the first syllable instead of the last. You will not see Marcel Marceau in a British Panto. In order to help my culturally challenged spouse, I asked if he remembered the “Fractured Fairytales” segment on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Yes, he did. “Well then, imagine that, live on stage, in drag,” I told him. And then I left.
Basically a Panto is merely an excuse for a lot of silliness. The venerable humor of Monty Python has its roots solidly planted in the British Panto tradition. Everyone on stage dresses up and runs around and sings silly songs. Everyone in the audience wets their pants laughing. The villains are hissed and the heroes are cheered. It is good clean family fun.
A well-known tale is chosen as the base from which to launch the humor, and this year the story in question is Robin Hood. The title role is played by a woman in the form of Nancy Rothman, looking dashingly handsome in green tights. But the leading lady is not a man in drag. It is instead the wildly talented Johnna Murray in an hilarious turn as a Maid Marian with a heavy Elmer Fudd speech impediment. She has a stalwart and gravid companion, Maude Lynne, wife of Little John, played by Ron Harrington sporting a five o’clock shadow and a make-up job by Tammy Faye Bakker.
In 1974 I sat in the theatre at Stratford-on-Avon and watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Cymbeline. As I watched Imogen disguised as a boy, it occurred to my 17-year-old brain that a few hundred years ago that would have been a male actor playing a woman disguised as a man. I wondered what that would have looked like, and if the actor in question would have tried to pretend to be a man the way a woman would, or if he would just rely on his own inherent maleness to take over. I was reminded of that long ago moment watching Rothman play Robin dressed in drag to rescue Maid Marian from the Sheriff’s clutches. She played that moment like a man pretending to be a woman – badly – and I was proud of her.
Walter Bauer, whose Panto turn as Helix the Cat in 2002 remains burned in my brain as an all time favorite stage moment, is here cast as the evil Sheriff Rottingscum of Nottingham. His partner in crime, Sir Hal of Burton, is played by Rupert Fennell, with a quick appearance early on by Robert Zuckerman as the dastardly Baron Rummyneed. Zuckerman reappears later in some alarmingly shiny faux armor as Doctor Sir Howard of Little Dene when he belts out a handsome solo on “Richard, Poor Richard.”
Spencertown executive director and author of the annual Panto Judy Staber appears this year in drag as Friar Tuck. I loved her performance as the gentle, tipsy Tuck and enjoyed the female anthropologist joke very much. I hope that the news that she is retiring from the Academy to devote all her time to writing does not mean that she won’t write and appear in future Pantos. Writing is a lonely life, Judy, you’ll need to get out once a year and have some fun with your Panto-Loonie friends!
Outstanding for his terpsichorean abilities in the number You’re My Top is Rick Rowsell as Little John. In the “Battle of the Bands” number he demonstrates how to dance with grace and aplomb while playing the knee cymbals. Rowsell has also designed the set, with its portable trees, and drawn some cheerful illustrations for the program.
Charlotte Davy Fennell is a delightfully dim Much the Miller, wearing festive red shoes. I am always glad to see Sally McCarthy on stage, this time as Alan a Dale, minstrel excelsior, but I wish we had gotten to hear her sing more.
Speaking of singing, the musical happenings this year are courtesy of Tony Gravett a.k.a. Will Scarlett. He is a cheerful onstage presence, wielding both an old-fashioned piano and some new-fangled electronic gadgets that provide tuneful treats. And Joanne Maurer has produced her usual plethora of fun and funny costumes for one and all.
The proceedings have once again been directed by Tom Detwiler, although I have a feeling that the Panto-Loons need less direction that wrangling to keep their high spirits and creativity at bay. Detwiler also appears as the glamorous and mysterious groupie Doll Dupp who is, in actuality…but to tell you that would spoil ALL the fun!
Rather than taking my confused marital partner along, I invited a Scottish friend who had seen many real British Pantos during her formative years in Edinburgh. She had a lovely time, but judged the Spencertown version to be squeaky clean in comparison to the real thing. There was no “peek of panties” and Little John’s boxer shorts should have been polka-dotted instead of merely plaid. I tell you this in case you too have experienced the real deal and are horrified at the thought of small children being exposed to such goings-on in the close quarters of the Spencertown Academy. This version is true family fare.
If you are a dyed in the wool conservative Republican, this may not be the show for you. There is always topical humor in a Panto and when one of the heroes is named Doctor Sir Howard of Little Dene and one of the villains is Sir Hal of Burton, you understand the political leanings of the creators. There is a comparison drawn between the usurping and unpopular King John of Robin’s day and a sitting president, but this is no political harangue. The script is far more obsessed with musical jokes and slapstick to get weighed down in partisan bickering.
I don’t know why I am bothering to tell you all this, since the show will undoubtedly be sold out by the time you read this. If you really want to go you will probably have to take a page from Robin Hood’s book and rob someone of their tickets at arrow-point in the parking lot. But in this case it would be well worth risking the wrath of the Columbia County Sheriff – so long as he waited until after the final curtain to clap you in irons.
Robin Hood and His Band of Merry Men, performed by the Panto-Loons runs November 26 & 27 at 7:30 p.m., and November 27 & 28 and December 3 & 4 at 2:30 p.m, at the Spencertown Academy on Rt. 203 in Spencertown, NY. The show runs an hour and 20 minutes without an intermission and is suitable for the entire family. Matinee tickets are $12 for adults/$10 for members and $6 for children 12 and under. Evening tickets are $15/$12 for members and $7 for children 12 and under. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-6264.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004