Pantomime. For many Americans the very word elicits frightening memories of silent, pale, black-clad street performers terrorizing little children with wild gesticulations. However, obnoxious mimers represent only a small minority in the history of the theatrical art that has existed in some form or another since antiquity.
In the United Kingdom, British Pantomime or Panto has little in common with the highly stylized and what sometimes appears to be the broadly despised Marcel Marceau variety. There, Panto is a raucous, bawdy spectacle more akin to American Vaudeville and early Hollywood silent movies. Using music, singing, and dialogue as well as body movements and dancing, Panto is more musical theater than the "portraitures" created by the famous French mimes. The audience is even encouraged to participate by yelling in unison at the characters. Colorful props, scenery, and costumes dominate the scenes.
Although modern pantomimes are commonly considered children's entertainment, enough naughty double entendrés and topical satire exist to keep adults winking at one another throughout the show. Amusingly, the lead male and female roles are often portrayed by the opposite gender. The Principal Boy wears hot pants and fishnets while the Dame is a clownish fellow in drag. Slapstick also plays an important role. Just imagine Marceau being socked in the face with a coconut cream pie. That's Panto. For the last couple hundred years or so, anyway.
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British Pantomime's greatest influence is perhaps Italian Commedia dell'Arte. The language barrier was addressed by miming the story while speaking the original dialogue. Hence a name that suggests a speechless performance. Eventually the Christmas Panto became as large a part of the Yuletide season as Dickens and Tchaikovsky. Pantomime never achieved the success in the States it did in other former British colonies, but some characteristics quickly found their way into American comedy. Many silent movie greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel learned their art on the Panto stages in England and in turn Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, and Jim Carrey borrowed material from them. If Americans were familiar with British Pantomime, they'd see that the art deserves redemption.
Here's our chance:
Twenty-year-old local nonprofit Gold Coast Theatre Company will bestow a holiday gift upon South Floridians: a chance to see an authentic Christmas Panto on this side of the pond. Their Robin Hood & the Babes in the Wood will feature an international roster of performers. Leading the cast are British TV stalwart Mike Winters, also a veteran of many a Panto back home; and Jude Parry, producer, Gold Coast director, and self-described "body expressionist." As is traditional, the pantomime opens the day after Christmas on what Brits call Boxing Day. Might be the perfect cure for a case of the holiday blues.
Gold Coast Theatre Company performs Friday, December 26, through Sunday, January 11, at Temple Emanuel, 1701 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Showtimes vary. Tickets cost $25 for adults; $15 for children, students, and seniors. Also available: British Panto Royal Tea Parties, including VIP seating and cast party. Royal Tea tickets cost $35 for adults; $17.50 for children. See www.britishpanto.org or call 305-538-5500.