ART goes slapstick for the holidays

MOUNT ABE SENIORS Hannah Gallivan as the Fairy Godmother and Sarah Heath as Little Bo-Peep rehearse a scene from the Addison Repertory Theater production of “Adrian: The Alternative Panto” on Monday. The holiday play will be staged Friday and Saturday at the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. Independent photo/Steve James

IT’S TRADITIONAL FOR a humorous English panto play, which mixes slapstick humor, music, quick costume changes and witty conversation with the audience, to include a man playing an English dame in drag. In the Addison Repertory Theater’s panto, “Adrian,” which will be staged this weekend, Middlebury Union High School senior Benjo Torres does the honor with his portrayal of Dame Drippington.
Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — When one thinks of holiday-themed performances, the mind instantly wanders to “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

But folks at the Hannaford Career Center’s Addison Repertory Theater, known as ART, are straying from Christmas convention this year. They’re thinking outside of the holiday gift box, you might say.

As a matter of fact, the young ART actors this weekend are taking their cue from Monty Python, rather that Charles Dickens. The cast and crew will be staging what ART Director Eric Reid-St. John called a “good ol’ English panto” — panto is short for pantomime — that’ll mix slapstick humor, music, quick constume changes — and even a dancing horse — to put Addison County residents into a merry holiday spirit.

The show’s called “Adrian: The Alternative Panto,” written by Robert Scott.

The side-splitting script comes through a British company called “Lazy Bee,” which specializes in pantos. ART actors were busy earlier this week in dress rehearsals in the buildup to two performances of “Adrian,” on Friday, Dec. 15, and Saturday, Dec. 16, both at the ART performance venue in the career center at 51 Charles Ave., Middlebury.

Reid-St. John doesn’t want to reveal any spoilers, but he provided the following context for the two-hour musical comedy:

“There’s a fellow who lives in ‘Panto Land’ who bemoans the fact that he never gets to have adventures, even though the people around him do,” Reid-St. John said. 

He’s given a chance to have those adventures following an unusual twist of fate.

Sharing Adrian’s adventures are a cast of familiar fairytale characters, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Belle (from “Beauty & the Beast”), the Big Bad Wolf and Jack of “Jack & the Beanstalk.”

Reid-St. John and his students have made little tweaks to the “Adrian” script to make it more relatable to an American audience. For example, the ART actors won’t be speaking with British accents.

“It tends to be a lot of work on its own to learn accents,” Reid-St. John said. “They’ll be speaking in their normal accents. We’ve done our best to Americanize the vocabulary as well.”

The goal is for “Adrian” to exude a cartoon-like ambiance — and not just any cartoon. If you’re older than 60 (or have access to reruns) you’ll remember the “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoon segments that were part of the Rocky & Bullwinkle show on Saturday morning TV. These were essentially parodies of fairy tales, with altered storylines. Episodes included “Slipping Beauty,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and “Beauty and Her Beast.”

This will actually be ART’s second stab at a panto production, and it almost certainly won’t be the student company’s last.

“We performed one in 2019, and it was my intention to make it an annual thing. But then guess what happened?” Reid-St. John asked rhetorically, alluding to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the curtain to remain down on performance stages throughout the world.

BEA HOOPER, AKA Cinderella, gets into character during a Tuesday dress rehearsal for ART’s upcoming play, “Adrian: The Alternative Panto.”
Independent photo/Steve James

“This was the first year (post-COVID) where we thought, ‘Let’s try it out and see if we can get it going again,’” he said of the panto genre, which includes occasional exchanges between the actors and audience.

Thirteen ART performers and techs will take spins on the stage, with some of them portraying multiple characters. For example, Mount Abraham Union High School’s Hannah Gallivan will portray the Fairy Godmother, Sleeping Beauty, Alice and “One-Eared Bill.”

“That’s been the fun part for our students involved in costuming,” Reid-St. John said, stressing the need for quick changes in attire.

“We’re calling them ‘fairytale chic,’” he joked of the costumes, some of them colorful and flamboyant.

The entire two-hour play will unfold in front of a Medieval-era peasant village backdrop depicting Bavarian-style structures with half-timbered, exposed wood frames.

“There are actually some jokes made (during the play) at the backdrop’s expense, that it never changes — even though the locale is supposed to change,” Reid-St. John chuckled.

LITTLE RED RIDING Hood, portrayed by Ella Kozak, and Benjo Torres, aka Dame Drippington, are two in a cast of 13 players in the ART production of “Adrian: The Alternative Panto,” a slapstick musical comedy to be staged at the Hannaford Career Center this Friday, Dec. 15, and Saturday, Dec. 16.
Independent photo/Steve James

He’s thrilled that the cast and crew are all hitting their marks as we approach showtime. He gave a big shout-out to the folks working behind the scenes, as the panto is a fast-paced affair.

“The technicians I have this year are amazing,” Reid-St. John said. “They’ve finished most of tech elements already. These kids really knocked it out of the park.”

ART students are put through a series of paces each academic year to develop their acting, tech and costume-making chops. They begin by staging a children’s show, where they get to be bold and expressive. The holiday season gives the actors a more substantial project requiring them to commit to characters for longer stretches. They then move on to more serious, dramatic subject matter during the spring. This current ART cast will take on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in the new year.

Sarah Heath, a senior at Mount Abe Union High School, portrays Little Bo Peep and Belle in the panto. She’s been in plays before, but “Adrian” gave her a chance to try something new. She and her fellow actors have been given liberal license to chat, wink or glance at folks in the seats — to great comedic effect.

“I like the part of how characters get to break the ‘fourth wall’ and talk to the audience,” she said. “It’s super fun. I think it’s funny when they get to connect to the audience on a deeper level.”

ADDISON REPERTORY THEATER’s Sarah Heath plays Little Bo- Peep in “Adrian: The Alternative Panto,” a funny, family friendly play to be staged by a cast of Hannaford Career Center students this weekend.

It’s clear Heath has been bitten by the acting bug. She’s planning further studies and ultimately a career in the theater.

“It’s something that makes me happy and that I enjoy doing,” Heath said. “If I could get paid to do that, it would be amazing.”

One of the staple characters of a panto is “Dame,” a man in drag. Benjo Torres is taking on that role for the ART’s production of “Adrian.” As “Dame,” he’ll have a lot of audience interaction. He’s a sizeable young man, which makes his performance in women’s clothing even more humorous.

And humor is the raison d’être for “Adrian: The Alternative Panto.”

Independent photo/Steve James

“The humor in the show is over the top; it’s large and very broad,” Torres said. “It’ll be fun trying to figure out how to communicate the size of it in a way the audience can understand.”

Torres is a senior this year at MUHS. He plans to take a gap year, followed by studies in writing.

Other members of the “Adrian” cast include Lucas Flinner (MUHS), Ella Kozak (MUHS), Bojan Harris (MAUHS), Bea Hooper (MUHS), Stephen Nuciolo (MUHS), Gabe Schmitt (MUHS), Jude Smith (MUHS), Evva Dicovitsky (home schooled), Mirabelle Markowski (MUHS), Remy Howe (MUHS) and Arlo Leduc (MUHS).

As the Independent went to press there will still tickets available for both performances of “Adrian: The Alternative Panto.” The $15 admission includes a dessert buffet at intermission prepared by the career center’s culinary students.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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