Arts & Culture

The magic of pantomime

What do you get if you mix a musical, a fairy tale and a bit of Monty Python?

You get a British panto (short for pantomime), a broadly comic and interactive theater experience that has been a holiday tradition for more than 300 years.

But although pantos are little known in the United States, you don’t have to travel to the United Kingdom to see one. You only have to travel to Seattle, where the Fremont Players are performing “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” this weekend.

“It’s a very exaggerated form of theater,” said Simon Neale, who produces the show. “It has very big colorful characters. You’ll see men dressed as women and women dressed as men.

“In the spirit of melodrama, we encourage the audience to join in, to boo the villain, to cheer for the hero.”

Neale, who grew up in England, said it’s not always easy to explain the shows to American audiences.

“This form of was something I’d grown up with and thoroughly enjoyed,” he said. “ I decided it would be a good idea to start a group here. It has been a little bit of an uphill battle to educate audiences to how much fun it is for the whole family.”

But perhaps panto’s time has arrived. There’s been much ado in the press recently about Pamela Anderson’s role as the genie in a London production of “Aladdin,” and last week, The New York Times published an article about Henry Winkler and his role as Captain Hook in a “Peter Pan” panto in Liverpool.

“Pantomimes – recastings of old children’s stories with vaudeville, audience participation, puns, singing and cross-dressing – are an honorable, even essential, part of the British Christmas season,” Sarah Lyall wrote in the article.

Yes, in England, cross-dressing and sexual innuendo – meant to go over the young ones’ heads – are good family fun. That can sometimes seem a foreign concept here.

Because the Fremont Players began performing the shows in 2002, understanding and audiences have grown. The players perform pantos at the holidays in Seattle and in the summer at the Oregon Country Fair.

“Over the last couple of years, I’ll recognize families from the years before, and they’ve brought two more families with them,” Neale said. “Word is getting out.”

And savvy audiences make for a better show, because interaction and improvisation are a big part of the fun.

“At the beginning of each show, I describe what pantos are about and encourage people to be loud and responsive,” Neale said.

“When the audience sees someone on stage and there’s something behind him that he should be made aware of, they can scream, ‘Look behind you!’” he explained. “And if an actor says, ‘Oh, no, I didn’t,’ the audience will respond with ‘Oh, yes, you did,’” said Neale, who is playing Aladdin’s mother, the Widow Twankey, in “Aladdin.”

“In a pantomime, there’s always a character called the dame,” he said. “It’s not drag because it’s not trying to fool anybody. It’s very obviously a guy in a dress with boots on and badly applied lipstick.

“I have a full mustache, and I leave that on for the show.”

A few years ago, Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen played the Widow in another London production, he added.

Among the other notables who’ve played in the pantos in Britain are Mickey Rooney and Patrick Duffy.

And, of course, Anderson, whose performance a critic for The Times of London summed up this way:

“Her prime function is sensuously, sinuously to palpitate, undulate, wiggle, wriggle and, told that evil hands all around are desperate to get hold of all she owns, to clutch with a smile at those celebrated boobs. All this she does well. A pity she has to speak, too.”