For Britons, there is a certain theatrical institution at Christmas time that defies all regular rules of the theatre.
Set in playhouses, village halls, and pubs throughout the U.K. (even fictional ones such as the Rovers Return on Coronation Street), pantomime (“panto” for short) dates back to classical theatre and the early masques (courtly entertainment) of the Elizabethan era.
Today’s pantos, which have travelled over to this side of the world, tend to use children’s fairy tales – Snow White, Cinderella, Jack and Beanstalk, among others – as excuses for thespians to be silly and break the third wall.
Actors get to overact, cross-dressing is the norm, songs are spoofed, and the best part, audience members get to participate in all the madness.
It’s jolly, good fun.
Armstrong’s Asparagus Community Theatre (ACT) is serving up all the ingredients of a panto with Robin Hood and His Merry Men. Written by rhyming British dream team Robin Bailes and Jonathan Hales, and directed by Sheryl Hamilton, making her directorial debut with Asparagus, Robin Hood is a ridiculous romp through Sherwood Forest.
As tradition dictates, the dastardly villains – cue the booing – Prince John (Phelan Gotto) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Mark Trussell) wear their evil high-heeled shoes well, especially Gotto with his maniacal laugh.
True to fashion, Prince John sends Nottingham out to tax the stuffing out of the peasants, helpfully introduced by the song Hey, Hey, We’re the Peasants, while rumour swirls about a dashing crusader (cheer the hero) who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
Meanwhile, the prince has promised to marry off his niece, Maid Marion (Mahalia Michael), to the sheriff if he fulfills his end of the bargain.
That’s about where the familiar story ends and the buffoonery begins.
We meet a new character, Gymkana Thatch (Jeunesse Pearson), a young girl whose cow Daisy (lopsided duo Jacob Mullen and Alex Lukacs) is constantly running off to munch on a sign wielding sunflower (Dakota William) until the audience is urged to stop her.
Gymkana’s parents (Jodi Bremner and George Young) have been taken away by the sheriff for not paying their taxes, so Gymkana, with the help of rhyming minstrel/narrator Ellen-a-Dale (Leah Kelly), comes up with a plan to become a boy named Jim to rescue them.
And who does she/he bump into, why none other than the hero Robin Hood (Shaleen Toney, who here plays the straight man) and his Merry Men.
These men in tights include jaded holy man Friar Tuck (Robert Stratford), clueless Little John (Carson Armitage) and sassy Will Scarlett (Cory MacIntosh, looking fabulous in red).
In the meantime, Robin Hood has discovered his childhood sweetheart, Maid Marion, is about to be betrothed to the nasty sheriff, and their ensuing duet to Grease’s You’re The One That I Want is more of an off-key Sonny and Cher than Travolta and Newton-John.
When Marion is kidnapped by the sheriff, Robin Hood and his Merry Men go west (to the Village People!) with the plan to infiltrate the wedding – that is if they can get past the sheriff’s henchmen as well as Jemima Gussett (Raymond Alexis), the desperate to-be-a housewife maid to Maid Marion. This dame is so hung up, she even lusts after the sheriff (as exampled in the hilarious duet of Baby, It’s Cold Outside).
Dancing along to Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, these merry men end up looking more like lumberjacks in ladies clothing (just like their dear Papa?) than your average wedding guest. Even Prince John’s evil laugh (and song Let Me Incinerate You) doesn’t stand in their corseted way.
Eventually, everyone finds his/her happy ending, except maybe the sheriff and Gussett, and the audience is treated to a disco inferno, with mirror ball twirling.
If you’re looking for a quiet date at the theatre, perhaps this is not the show for you. But if you’re up for a family friendly time (and what kid wouldn’t love to shout out during a show and not be frowned upon) of silly good-natured, gender bending, campy fun, this panto should fill your boots.
Robin Hood and His Merry Men continues at Armstrong’s Centennial Theatre Dec. 9 through to Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee Saturday, Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. Contact The Guy Next Door at 250-546-0950 for tickets.