Imaginary Beasts’ TALE OF THE FROG PRINCE (@ BCA through Feb. 7th) might sound as if it’s child’s play—but it’s far more. Children will adore the outsized comedy but their parents will recognize the artistry and appreciate the allusions behind, in front of, and on top of the fairy tale.
The Beasts specialize in staging Pantos (from the Latin ‘pantomimus,’ meaning player of many parts), a unique British entertainment popularized in the 18th century (which grew out of the earlier Italian commedia dell’arte) combining burlesque, ballet, acrobatics, transformations, topical song, splendid costumes, stock characters and witty poetry. To this day, Pantos are performed in England, usually on Dec. 26th which in the U.K. and Canada is “Boxing Day.”
Matthew Woods and company utilize the Panto form to send up popular culture while they’re spinning out their ornamented story. This year’s show embraces all things aquatic, including frogs (who are represented by both puppets and human actors), a dragonfly and an exquisite underwater ballet, not to mention the Beasts’ hilarious references to CFCs, BPAs, ground water pollution and other poisons which endanger our water.
You can rhapsodize all day about their historically accurate Panto but what really floats the metaphorical boat is their exquisite ensemble work. Imaginary Beasts has an extraordinarily versatile cast who can clown, dance and act up a storm, even when little members of the audience get rambunctious. Interacting with the crowd is part and parcel of a Panto: We get to boo and hiss the villains and cry out to warn the righteous characters when catastrophe is imminent. The wee ones at my performance sat on the edge of their chairs, waiting for the next opportunity to do so.
Your eagle eye (and keen ear) can find a variation of a Danny Kaye bit (“the chalice with the palace, not the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”) and an inspired “mushroom” version of Trepak from The Nutcracker. Speaking of Tchaikovsky, Kiki Samko and company’s brilliant choreography for the Swan Lake spoof is made twice as delicious by Cameron Cronin’s incomparable pas de chat in a tulle tutu.
Of course every element meshes perfectly in THE FROG PRINCE, but it’s Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s sublime, jaw dropping costumes which tie it all together. Joey C. Peletier, in the grand “Dame” role of Her Majesty the Queen, gets three different, gorgeous gowns to swoop in; Director/actor Matthew Woods as the Wicked Water Valkyrie is dressed and coiffed as if Betty Grable were playing Marie Antoinette: High hair, great gams... and the snarl of Rin Tin Tin. The vibrant colors in the material Talbot-Minkin finds reminded me of the eye-popping illustrations in the Little Golden Books of the 50’s.
Elizabeth Pearson (in the “Boy” hero role) works one of the frog “body puppets” (by Pearson and Jill Rogati) so earnestly that you look to the puppet’s mouth, not hers, for her dialogue. Later in the story she becomes the puppet itself via a green amphibian costume. (My favorite bit of inventive magic is Rogati's book hat for Noah Simes’ “Oracle.”)
Samko gets sweet laughter as the slow going, but fast thinking Mother Snail. Her “travel” secret is so sublimely silly that you can’t wait for it to recur; the same with Amy Meyer’s encyclopedic Dragon Fly. What fun to see Bob Mussett as a flustered Lord Chancellor (with a nod to the Mikado); Molly Kimmerling delights as the Good Fairy and Erin Eva Butcher as the princess everyone wants to woo, could charm the fish out of the sea. Mikey DiLoreto as a Marx Brother-inhabited skunk named Coco honks his assent and his disapproval, just like Harpo. Sound (Woods and Dierdre Benson) plays a large part in the comedy. Benson punctuates jokes with a loud ding of a hotel desk bell from her perch above the audience.
William Schuller portrays the Valkyrie’s smarmy son, who wants to marry Butcher’s wild child princess and Michael Underhill races from pillar to post to aid the frog prince. Michael Chodos thoroughly transforms himself into a slithering leech, right down to his inverted, invertebrate mouth! Suffice it to say, see all these Beasts (and more) to witness a historically informed performance of a Panto… or see it for the outrageous puns and clever couplets… or go for the chance to sing “Jeremiah was a Bull Frog”….You know they had to go there.