Friday, June 4, 2010

TITO goes panto

They call it panto, a form that finds its roots in the ancient Commedia dell'Arte but is filtered through old-school British vaudeville and seasoned in the modern. But you probably could do just as well calling “Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto,” which Theater in the Open takes for a spin around the park this month, a pop culture Cuisinart. The show slices and dices all those beloved stories from your youth, mixing and matching their characters and whipping their stories into a thick theatrical broth that is seasoned with the buzz-buzz of news, real and pseudo, and following the trail no matter where it goes. It's both a new, original show and a pastiche. It features everyone’s favorite housecleaner, who always makes her curfew, no matter what; a dozen princesses, mostly dancing; a trio of troublemakers, Mavens of Misery — Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty," Ursula from "The Little Mermaid," and Cruella De Vil from "101 Dalmatians" — who are every bit as evil as those clowns from British Petroleum who are still busy fouling the Gulf and who take a few well-deserved b-slaps during the show. You add a little singing and buffoonery, as well as a little encouraged booing and hissing and stage direction from the audience and you’ve got a panto. Add a seven-foot giraffe made from, well, whatever you manage to get your hands on, and you've got yourself a Titopanto. 

“Panto is a fun, interesting style that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” says Damon Jespersen, who's making his directoral debut with the company he’s been a part of on and off — mostly on — for the past 15 years. The Byfield resident took a couple of years off from the stage. (“Theater burnout,” he says.) He taught, build a ceramics studio, a new house, then moved the ceramics studio into the new house, which kept him busy, but “none of which is nearly as fun as making art,” he says. He actually returned to the company last fall for the Stephen Haley production of “The Tempest” and in “Waiting for Godot,” staged during the Spring Fundraiser And when he was ready to get back to the stage, Jespersen looked south to the Lynn-based Imaginary Beasts troupe, which specializes in panto. TITO Artistic Director Edward Speck saw all of Beast’s shows, including “The Fantastic Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor,” last January at Gloucester Stage Company — a wild scene, he says. Panto calls for a lot of audience. “The kids end up up front, completely enthralled," says Speck, who plays the colorfully named Cooler the Rhubarb Cobbler in the production. "The parents were in the back, but they were yelling louder than everybody else.” He wanted in. “It seemed like it would really translate well to our company,” says Speck. “It seemed like a good fit.” He signed on Jespersen, the guy with the know-how, to direct.

During the winter months, the company talked about what a TITO panto would look like, and very quickly came to the conclusion that it would center on fairy tales, the company’s specialty, and that it would have princesses, lots of them — a smart and practical thing to do, given the current composition of the company, which is heavy on princesses and light on princes. They had some brainstorming sessions and did some group writing during the dark months. They came up with the idea of importing evil characters from a bunch of classic stories from the Evil Empire, er Disney. They have the Mavens kidnap all the princes from Fairyland, where all the stories live. The princesses end up in Cinderella-land, trying to rescue their sweeties. "That got us off and running in a new direction," says Jespersen. That was as far as they could go until the show was cast. "You write for your people," says Jespersen.

His people at this point include 27 actors and three understudies — a huge cast. We know that the Wicked Stepmother is not mean at all and is played by a man, that Cinderella has to find the lost prince, instead of the other way around, that Cinderella and the Prince are greenies, very concerned about global warming, and work together to fight it. But there still some things up in the air. Still. One week before curtain, they're still writing. “It’s never done,” Jespersen says. They just added a line the same day as the interview with Newburyport Arts. A good line they couldn't walk away from. “Actors don’t like that,” says Jespersen,  “Nope, they don’t like that at all ... It’s evolving. It’s not there yet, but it’s starting to look like something.”

After finishing the June run of "Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto," the company will take off-campus, so to speak, for a June 29 production at the Millyard in Amesbury.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto" will be staged at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 27 at Maudslay State Park. Follow the flags from the main parking lot. Allow 10 minutes to reach the site. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and students and free for kids age 3 or younger. The June 5 show is free for all. For directions, click here. For more information, call 978.465.2572 or log onto

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN: Here is the cast for Theater in the Open's production of "Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto: Edward Speck,  Rhubarb the Cobbler; Jeff Larson, Wicked Stepmother Johnson; Molly Ericson, Cinderella Johnson; Annie Moore, Chuck the Mail Man; Chelsea Van Schalkwyk, Ariel; Lily MacLeod, Sleeping Beauty; Stephanie Ericson, Butter Cup; Claire Renales, Snow White; Lydia Peacock, Rapunzel; Katrina Turner, Rapunzel understudy; Tori Hart, Sprinkles; Julia DiBiase, Joceline; Kathrine Kjaer, Shirley; Olivia Hurley, Malia; Lisa Eichel, Sierra; Rachel Ameen, Sam; Olivia Sciulli, Arabella; Max Vye, Penny; Ricky Smith, Pincher; Aisha Chodat,Prince Albert; Jeff Eichel, The BK King; Cailin McFarland, Dough Dough; Raine Ericson, Dill Dill; Dyane Stillman, Cruella De Vil; Beth Randall, Ursula; Rachel Hawkes, Maleficent; Kathryn Tolley, Maleficent understudy; Evan Jespersen, Solara; Allegra Larson, Alice; Rachel Harris, Alice understudy; Andy Blaustein, Guardian of Tiger Forest

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