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Archive for Sunday, December 22, 2002

Men in dresses and fractured fairy tales bring English Christmas to stage

December 22, 2002

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— Looking for a traditional English Christmas?

Forget Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

The real deal is a mix of "Fractured Fairy Tales" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," tossed with a generous dose of slapstick and melodrama popularly known as panto.

A thoroughly British holiday tradition that predates Dickens and might make Disney blush, the Oregon Cabaret Theater has turned it into a local favorite with an American accent in a town best known for Shakespeare.

"It's a totally different theater experience," says Jim Giancarlo, artistic director of OCT and author of four pantos.

Giancarlo wrote his first panto in 1992, desperate for a holiday show to keep his small dinner theater filled during the long cold winter, when the big tourist draw, the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is dark.

"It's a real adventure," Giancarlo says of writing panto. "Disney is so identified with this story. I've got that looming over my head all the time. But pantos are silly."

Panto is short for pantomime, whose Greek root refers to a play performed with mute gestures and music. But the British product is anything but silent.

The form has its roots in the Commedia dell'Arte, the raucous Italian song and dance theater that dates back to the 16th century and was the inspiration of Punch and Judy puppet shows.

Giancarlo's latest story begins with an audience warm-up in which a dramaturge -- a dig at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which employs several to interpret the Bard -- explains panto to three goofy pages in choir robes.

He has preserved the panto tradition of the cross-dressing "Dame" character, with 6-foot-3-inch Wade McCollum playing the evil stepmother, Evilena. "Put him in four-inch heels and an 18-inch wig and that's a lot of woman," says Giancarlo.

Evilena sings "Michael Jackson's got nothing on me" after her repeat visits to the plastic surgeon in the song, "I've Been Done," a takeoff on "Dance 10, Looks 3" from "A Chorus Line."

She sends Snow White (Jacqueline Stein) off to New York, with the Huntsman (David Ray) on her trail. He is to cut out Snow White's heart with a salami (because its funnier than a knife) and bring it back for a Hannibal Lecter-style entree with fava beans.

But the Hunstman can't do it, and Snow White finds refuge in a fraternity house, where she is napping when three computer geeks come home. A take-charge modern woman, Snowy forms them into a rock band, belting out "Snowy and the Dweebs" to the tune of "Benny and the Jets," with Dweebs Rad (Hitchcock), Cool (Kasey Mahaffy) and Awesome (Marc Swan).

Then she succumbs to a bite from the poisoned apple and falls into a deep sleep to be awakened with a kiss from The Prince (Ray).

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