Join the rampant tomfoolery at Theatre Britain’s Sleeping Beauty

Three years ago I attended my first panto, because a friend was in the cast. Like many, I had only a vague notion of what the sublime, long-standing, British tradition of the Christmas Panto was all about. The Christmas Panto is based on a fairy tale (perhaps nursery rhymes?) and amounts to a spoof. It does not involve Christmas per se, but enlists adults and children alike, in its goofy, giddy, marvelously ridiculous merriment, utterly consistent with the spontaneity and warmth of the season. Even the villain is embraced in the end. The audience is encouraged to talk back, engage in a singing contest (“boys” against the “girls”) boo the bad guys and alert characters when they miss something. “Look out behind you.” Some of the subtler pleasures include jokes that are obviously aimed at the grown-ups (“You told them to shove it where?” “Why, in the recycling bin.”) seeing the young folk thoroughly consumed in the narrative, and the gender defiance of “The Dame” and “Principal Boy”. The dame is a lusty, busty flirtatious gal who loves to come on to a guy in the front row. She is also a man in drag. By the same turn, principal boy is a young, essentially prepubescent actress. Mind you, pantos go back many, many years.

This year was Jackie Mellor-Guin’s The Sleeping Beauty. Emelda the Evil Fairy is angry when she is unwittingly snubbed at a posh affair, thrown in honor of the new Princess. She hexes the Princess, sending her into a deep sleep for a 100 years, till the smooch of a Handsome Young Prince, breaks the spell. Stealing the focus of this beloved story are Mrs. Broom (The Dame) and her son, Sleepy Pete, prone to nod off at random moments. Mrs. Broom loves to dither and gush, and keeps her son’s identity secret, to maintain her illusion of youth. That is to say: ingenues do not have grown children. Adding to the chaos and distraction are three rapping fairies: Fairy Nuff, Fairy Mary and Fairy Ethel. Kudoes to costume designer Tory Padden for the witty and fresh threads she has brought to this production.

Theatre Britain has staged a playful, bouncy, quirky celebration of fancy and nonsense, romance and retaliation, magic and shenanigans. There is something irresistible about the spirited recreation we are invited to for the length of the play, to lose ourselves in giddy absurdity and careless gusto. It only took one dose of this elixir to make me a believer. Perhaps it will work for you too.

Theatre Britain presents The Sleeping Beauty, playing November 26th-December 30th, 2016. Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism at WaterTower: wry, fresh and funny

Watching Sister’s Christmas Catechism one is reminded somewhat of Christopher Durang’s satire: Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You. But while Catechism is ultimately light-hearted, Durang’s spoof takes more vitriolic aim at some of the dubious aspects of Roman Catholic theology. Both emerge from the same premise: We, the audience, are in Catholic parochial school, and Sister addresses us as her pupils. Comparing Catechism to a cringingly cute comedy such as Nunsense or Sister Act, it is a relief to discover it leans more towards the cranky and stern, in the hilarious mode of Brother Theodore. Hmmmmm. Perhaps a new genre, Monastic Comedy is emerging?

When “class” begins, it is the day of the Christmas party, there is an advent calendar on the wall, some appropriate decorations, and a very kitschy, plastic depiction of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus that feature the cherubic faces precious children. The incongruity of this is not lost on Sister, whose grim, wry air of resignation manages to be funny without being bitter. Nonie Newton Riley strikes an impressive balance between cynicism and the leavening of mischievous digs. She may single out particular students (audience members) to get a laugh at their expense, but it never feels cruel or petty. We never wonder if “Sister” goes home every night and seethes over politics and gin. In the same way that bilious, curmudgeonly Brother Theodore (or Don Rickles) gets a lather up, she never crosses over into the toxic or vindictive. She points out when someone’s behavior, or dress, might be inconsistent with Catholic Doctrine, but for some reason it seems intuitive and genuinely comical.

Sister just loves the current television trend towards cop dramas by way of Forensic Science, which explains the show’s subtitle: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold. By enlisting our help, she attempts to solve the quandary of what exactly happened to the gold, after it was gifted to sweet little Baby Jesus. It is often the critic’s dilemma, it seems to do justice to a show without spoiling any (or at least too many) surprises. It seems pretty clear that casting in any one-woman performance would be crucial, and Ms. Riley is thoroughly delightful as she shares her annoyance on any number of topics. I think it’s also germane to mention what a revelation it is to discover Sister’s Christmas Catechism, in light of the woeful lack of freshness, intrigue, and gusto when it comes to live entertainment at Christmas time. I have no problem with A Christmas Carol (I understand DTC’s is first-rate) but even Tiny Tim deserves some R & R, don’t you think?

WaterTower Theatre presents: Sister’s Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold, playing December 2nd-23rd, 2016. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 450-6232.

B.J. Cleveland’s masterful touch perfect for Christmas Carol Radio Show

The year is 1947. Bob Bennett, Manager at Radio Station KXMS, happens to catch the phone at an inopportune moment. The cast and orchestra for a Christmas Eve broadcast of A Christmas Carol is snowed in, so it falls to Bob to take on this gargantuan task. Twenty-one characters with sound effects. Even if Bennett has some experience with such performances, he is the only one at the studio, so me must be alert, focused and poised. He barely has time to gather his wits before the show is scheduled.

One hesitates when considering such shows, which tend to lend themselves to the frantic and the cloying. We imagine some overworked, underpaid guy, struggling to make his cues, and strategically, feverishly delivering twenty-one distinct voices, while doing justice to the familiar yarn. Perhaps too familiar. While the premise certainly provides ample opportunity for zany physical comedy and shameless appeals to our most tender feelings of nostalgia and yearning for Christmas redemption, somehow star, B.J. Cleveland and playwright David Alberts find a legitimate path to exploring Dickens’ ultimately sympathetic portrait of hapless, miserable, cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge.

It’s a given that in a one-man show of this sort casting is crucial. Not just because the actor must be resourceful enough to carry the piece for ninety minutes straight, but the ingenuity to bring just the touch and balance to take us through the story without merely pushing our buttons. Without crossing the line from pathos into maudlin melodrama. Boiled in their own pudding? Die and decrease the surplus population? Egads! What kind of monster is this Scrooge bastard, anyway?

Lucky for us, director Gene Ray Price and Cleveland refused to take the easy way out, bringing fresh energy and imaginative interpretation to content most of us could repeat in our sleep. Cleveland brings his stirring, emotionally rich texture to this show, earning genuine ticklish hilarity, somber grief, and aching for the man who had no family to share Christmas as a boy and lost his fiancee on a Christmas Eve. Cleveland knows how to invite us into his personal journey, never settling for derivative or easy response. In a season where theatres grope for something different yet true to the spirit of joy and generosity, Cleveland uses his mastery to include us in a lovely, profoundly moving experience.

Theatre Too presents: A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show, playing November 25th-December 11th, 2016. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, TX 75201-1417. 214-871-3300.

Exhilarating, gory and strangely tender: KDT’s Feathers and Teeth will tickle and chill


Reflecting upon Kitchen Dog’s current black comedy, Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth, I was struck by the subtlety of the title. In nature, you never see both in the same creature. If it has teeth it doesn’t have feathers. If it has feathers it doesn’t have teeth. But the villain of Feathers and Teeth does. Like Mack the Knife, she’s very good at hiding her grisly side. Set in 1978, and recalling the trashy sci-fi of the 60’s, Feathers and Teeth mixes a strange and unlikely blend of genres: dark satire, absurdism, horror and drama. And (this is the truly bizarre part) they blend perfectly, like a collage, or a quadriptych. When we see Arthur jumping Carol’s bones on the kitchen table it’s ridiculous, funny and sad, all at once.

Chris, an angry teenage girl, has lost her mother to cancer, and her dad, Arthur (while well-meaning) has not left much time to grieve before taking up with his deceased wife’s nurse caretaker, Carol. Arthur has just hit some small, unidentifiable animal with his car, far beyond a veterinarian’s help. For some inexplicable reason, he drops it in a perfectly good stockpot, and Carol subsequently “euthanizes” it with a butcher knife. She’s not exactly, uh, gentle. Later, when Chris and her German Boy Scout friend Hugo, check in the pot, they discover that not only is the creature not dead, but it’s reproducing And has a thirst for carnage. It’s amazing and amusing, what you can pull off, simply by letting the blood fly.

Here I must give all kinds of mad props to Charise Castro Smith, Director Lee Trull, and cast members: Matt Lyle, Morgan Laure’, Dakota Ratliff and Parker Gray. This is difficult material to pull off. Beyond evincing a successful show, there’s something about this play that transcends narrative on its face. It stays in your memory, though it’s not easy to understand why. Smith has laced this piece with vivid, indirect metaphor. Like other intoxicating shows, it rewards closer inspection. Kitchen Dog has a gift for staging plays that sink into your skin. As it were. Feathers and Teeth is subversive, and tender in odd ways. It takes a deranged sense of irony to stage this during the holidays, but it’s something you shouldn’t miss. If you love visionary, risky theatre.

Kitchen Dog Theater presents: Feathers and Teeth, playing November 18th-December 17th, 2016. Trinity River Arts Center, located at 2600 N. Stemmons Fwy, Ste, 180, Dallas, TX 75207. 214-953-1055.

Undermain’s 10 out of 12 sharp, original ensemble piece


Anne Washburn’s 10 out of 12, an ensemble piece, reveals how cast and crew (stagehands, lights, sound, designers, director, assistant director…) function as a team, during the grueling process of tech rehearsal. All cues and blocking, all light and sound and any hiccups are smoothed over before the show opens. It’s like childbirth. It might be interesting to reflect on, but you’re grateful to be spared the experience. Washburn makes us privy to this universe in small We are actually handed headsets so we can hear backstage chatter between crew members. It’s impressive to consider that we get just enough information from each character, to get a sense of their personality and contribution.

Perhaps few audience members have a grasp of how a show functions before it’s up on its feet, or after opening night. 10 out of 12 is a demonstration of the mishaps, foibles, confrontations, quirky and grotesque exchanges that occur, in the incredibly stressful context of pulling all the components together, while maintaining the sense of playfulness vital to making it work. As with all the artistic disciplines, actors and the creative team must strike a shaky balance between being relaxed and yet alert and focused. They pass through each cycle of rehearsal, preparation, changes as opening night looms ever closer and emotions run hot.

There is a key turn in the second act in which one of the actors has a meltdown, loudly proclaiming that the very welfare of his soul is at stake. Up until this outburst he keeps trying to dissuade the director from his interpretation of the script. Usually these issues are resolved before tech rehearsals, and it’s to Washburn’s credit that a single event adds such clarity and complication to the story. When the actor goes off the deep end, we’re incredulous. It’s not that the others don’t care, but if he takes it so much to heart, why did he wait this long? The way the rest of the company responds immediately and in the following days, tells us much about the warmth and care they have for each other. We may not believe his spiritual welfare is in peril, but his colleagues do. Even if they disagree, they respect his devotion to the craft.

Undermain Theater presents the Dallas Premiere of 10 out of 12, playing November 9th-december 3rd, 2016. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515.