By Erik Nikander
imaginary beasts’ Winter Panto 2019 proffers plenty of enthusiasm, wit, and panache.
Winter Panto 2019: Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow (An American Tall Tale), story conceived by Matthew Woods and written by the imaginary beasts ensemble. Directed by Woods. Staged by imaginary beasts at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown, MA, through February 10.
“Family-friendly” is a tricky label in the theater. Too often, the phrase serves as a euphemism for “The kids will have fun, and the parents’ eyes will glaze over a bit but at least it’ll get everyone out of the house.” Not so for imaginary beasts’ Winter Panto 2019, Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow. This frisky production is family-friendly in the best sense; no member of the family will be able to resist its charms. The company imbues the production with such earnest, good-natured humor and thoroughly creative staging choices that it is hard not to be swept up. Not sold yet? Well, this is the only show I’ve seen in the Boston area that’s been bold enough to include a talking pancake. Local companies, take note: the bar has been set.
Appropriately enough for the New England area (Johnny Appleseed was born in Leominster, after all), the subject of the Winter Panto 2019 is Paul Bunyan, the tallest of American tall tale legends. However, this version of Paul (Kiki Samko) isn’t a skyscraper; he’s a scrappy youngster out to prove his worth by founding a logging camp in the middle of a snow-covered forest. He accumulates a group of friends along the way; the menagerie includes Babe the Blue Ox (Colin McIntire), wonder-dog Niagara (Joey C. Pelletier), a cook named Mabel Syrup (Noah Simes), and rough-and-tumble prairie girl Carrie McGinty (Laura Detwiler). They all struggle to make their way in the world, despite the chilly influence of King Zero (Matthew Woods), who, in an effort to make the story go his way, tries to take over the narration from Oakey Dokes the Balladeer (Dan Prior).
Apart from Paul’s central coming-of-age story, other character threads crisscross throughout the piece, such as the neglect and jealousy Niagara feels when he witnesses Paul and Babe’s friendship, and Mabel’s frantic attempts to prepare a pancake breakfast for the camp. There’s even a small environmental subplot where Paul and Carrie devote themselves to sustainable forestry! It feels messy at times, but the chaos is part of the show’s charm. The imaginary beasts tap into a sense of madcap confusion that keeps everything skipping along. Anyone who demands that things start making sense is missing the point.
Though the story is entertaining, the real feat of the Winter Panto 2019 is the theatrical environment that the imaginary beasts create. Audience participation is welcome; kids are encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and shout out phrases to help move the story along. Groan-worthy puns are tossed out with such sincerity that you grin — even as you roll your eyes. Musical numbers are sprinkled round and about, and there are even some brief puppetry interludes. The atmosphere is sweetly unpretentious: reckless creativity is the norm and popular theatrical traditions — from vaudeville running all the way back to the Victorian pantomime play — are gleefully embraced. It’s this critic’s first Panto, and it’s clear to see why audiences have been coming back to them for over a decade.
The beasts are a strong ensemble, but several cast members are particularly engaging. Kiki Samko is terrific as Paul, a dynamo of unflagging enthusiasm. Her vivid facial expressions dart from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Despite the stagey nature of the material, Samko somehow manages to serve up an honest, rather than campy, hero. Joey C. Pelletier excels as Niagara, generating poignant comedy that’s both heartfelt and hilarious. The battle of the narrators — between Prior as Oakey Dokes and Woods as King Zero — is fun to watch, in part because the two actors relish butting heads. In addition, even if Amy Meyer’s character wasn’t the only talking/running/dancing flapjack on the Boston stage, she’d stand out as the funniest by far.
The technical work is largely exceptional, boasting personality-rich costumes designed by Cotton Talbot-Minkin, expressive lighting from Robin Donovan Bocchario, and whimsical props by Sophia Nora Giordano. The sound work is generally effective as well, apart from one particular musical number in the middle of the show, for which the mix is oddly unbalanced. In this case, the background music drowns out the vocals, muddling the action and the jokes. Another minor gripe: much of the giggly wordplay is clever, including some amusing pop culture nods (a woodland critter tells Paul, “May the forest be with you”), but some of the obvious references to pop songs feel forced.
Not every joke lands, it’s true, but there are so many more hits than misses that it’s unfair to dwell on the groaners for long. Imaginary beasts’ Winter Panto 2019 is filled with enthusiasm, wit, and panache, which makes it the ideal sort of family-friendly show, the kind both parents and kids walk out of feeling grateful for an entertaining night out. Is there a better way to banish the winter doldrums than a dose of joyful nonsense?
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.