Armed with rubber chicken slingshots, audience members moseyed to their seats at the Presidio Theatre on Dec. 1, minding the sign that warned of sporadic candy tosses. It was opening night of the theatre’s annual Panto in the Presidio, and the performers wouldn’t be the only ones getting in on the action.
Gag toys and relinquished sweets are just some elements used in the British holiday tradition of pantomime, commonly called panto. Mixing in musical parodies and comical antics, this form of entertainment is known for cooking up interactive absurdity catered to both adults and children. For Presidio Theater’s second year of Panto in the Presidio, they have revamped “Sleeping Beauty” into an over-the-top fairytale doused in Bay Area puns.
Dressed in drag, Julia the Cook (Curt Branom) acted as the audience’s panto guide, her ginormous mound of luscious locks reaching ridiculous heights (and widths) as she inspired audience participation. Alongside the talking dog, Embarkadero (Scott Reardon), she warmed up the crowd with a slew of dad jokes. Never minding the success of each joke, a drummed “ba dum tss” repeatedly sounded, tickling the audience’s suppressed snickers and pity chortles into an inescapable sea of infectious laughter.
Laughs turned to “boos” as Hernia the Witch (Rotimi Agbabiaka) cat-walked onto the stage in fishnets and facial hair. Described as a real pain, her pointy red horns and flashy acrylic nails complemented the deep echo of her voice as she sang “Boss Witch.” Before leaving the castle, she left behind a familiar curse: If a needle pricked Princess Sonoma (Sharon Shao) before her sixteenth birthday, she would fall into a perpetual sleep and only awaken with a prince’s kiss.
By the eve of Princess Sonoma’s sixteenth birthday, it was clear the kingdom eagerly anticipated its return to making clothing with needles. Despite the joke of being doomed to search for exact sizes in thrift shops, costume designer Alina Bokovikova made a show stopping statement of originality and awe. From the clever and comedic wings of each chicken costume to the intricately fruit-topped bosom of Julia the Cook, her work kept the audience in an alluring game of I Spy.
Also tantalizing the audience’s optical appetite were the many surprises littered throughout “Sleeping Beauty.” During one scene, Pecker the talking rooster (Andre Amarotico) — a real chick magnet — left the three non-talking chickens swooning in heart-racing clucks and coos. To catch Pecker’s eye, Sourdough the Chicken (Jen Brooks) stripped a tree trunk of its bark, revealing a pole to dance on as her blazing blue locks cascaded across her round chicken figure.
Parodying popular songs by artists such as Harry Styles and Celine Dion, the performers weren’t the only ones singing along. Under the musical direction of Bill Keck, the live band’s impressive virtuosity naturally lured in voices from the crowd. During an oddly romantic rendition of “Semi-Charmed Life,” the catchy melody rose from all areas of the theater, balanced by the lighthearted strum of a ukulele.
Even in panto, “Sleeping Beauty” ends with a kiss. In a desperate attempt to find a prince, the castle hosted Kingdom’s Got Talent, featuring musical contestants reminiscent of Prince and Rick Astley (that’s right — the entire audience got rickrolled). It wasn’t until Prince Logan (Matthew Kropschot) sang alongside the resonant voice of Queen Montgomery (Renée Lubin) that the princess could be kissed awake from her slumber. With a collective arm sway and a repeated “Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do” from the audience, Hernia dramatically hurtled across the sky, banished from the castle for good.
Panto may still be relatively unknown to American audiences, but Presidio Theater has beautifully rendered its intoxicating humor to the Bay Area. It has shown how laughter unlocks imaginations and taps audiences into the realm of childlike wonder. Who knew rubber chicken slingshots, spell-casting drag queens and pole-dancing poultry were all one needed to relieve the stress of the holidays?