British Players Do Holiday Vaudeville
Attending The Princess and the Sprout is a little like popping in for a Christmas toddy with the kooky neighbors – the British – and discovering they’ve planned “an entertainment” — drapes on the gazebo, construction paper taped to the risers and the posts on the deck (And is that really colored construction paper taped over the risers on the stairs, I kept asking myself? Yes: it was), enough folding chairs in the backyard for all the other neighbors, most of whom have popped in too!
The production is billed as “a traditional British pantomime,” which does not mean white gloves, white makeup, and Marcel Marceau, I discovered. Nothing that quiet or restrained. It turns out the lady of the house is actually a man, the knight in shining armor is actually a woman in a chainmail cowl, and the golden boy, Prince Fussypants is actually a girl who doesn’t wear pants at all, just fishnet stockings and stiletto boots under a royal tunic that stops an inch above the bottom of her bum.
“The pantomime first arrived in England as minor acts between opera pieces,” according to the British Players’ website. “In Restoration England, a pantomime was considered a low form of opera, in fact.” So it’s clearly not a silent form. Traditional pantomimes are based on children’s stories or fairytales, though their “plot lines are often adapted for comic or satirical effect, and certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance.” They’re fairy tale farces, in other words, laced with the absurdity that one associates with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The gender-switching is also traditional in pantomimes: the prince, who’s usually on the marriage market, is always played by a woman, and his mother is always played by a man. In this case those roles are filled by Karen Minatelli as Prince Fishnetstockings and Charles Hoag as Queen Snobalott. One imagines that cross-dressing might have been harder to pull off in Restoration England than it is in Washington DC, hence its association with absurdity and semi-ribald celebration.
The children’s story at the bottom of this pantomime is The Princess and the Pea: the royal family tries to determine whether the girl who shows up at their door is a true princess by serving her brussels sprouts, which everybody finds disgusting but which high-born people choke down anyway to be polite. She fell off the pile of mattresses they tried to make her sleep on.
The British Players were originally The British Embassy Players, a group of embassy staffers who decided to enhance Anglo-American relations by staging British plays at the British Embassy. The group incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2006, and since then it has raised more than $400,000 for British and American charities.
The current production involves a cast of twenty people, some of whom are accomplished actors while others are beginners. Colin Davies (King Kindhearted) was trained at Oxford, and he has performed all over the world. Karina Gershowitz studied in England and worked in London’s West End theaters for many years. Holding down the other end of the experience spectrum are first-timers Kylee Sanders, a fourth-grader at Carderock Elementary School, and Emma Nalls, a fifth-grader at De Chantall School in Bethesda. Emma convinced Kylee to give pantomime a whirl.
The credited production staff includes nearly fifty people in roles that range from Transportation Coordinator Peter Nerenstone to Costume Designer Joan Roseboom, whose work is the highlight of the show. Stephanie Miller’s choreography includes some passages that are fun to watch, and Gershowitz plays Equine, the show’s anchor, with charm and charisma.
The production is fueled by great enthusiasm, on the part of both the players and the audience, many of whom must be Brits or friends of Brits or embassy employees who created a backyard party atmosphere of laughter and conviviality. One gentleman even accepted the invitation to join the cast on stage for a chorus of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” But the fuel of enthusiasm starts to run lean after the prince marries the princess who was posing as his maid; that event should probably be the end of the show, but it isn’t.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.
The Princess and the Sprout plays at 7 PM tonight and tomorrow at 1 PM at the Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, purchase them online. Tomorrow’s 1 PM performance is Sold Out!