It was when the man dressed as a woman sat on my knee that I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical night in the theater.
“What’s your name?” asked Queen Agnes of Malvaria, played with a gruff voice, a pastel wig and matching pastel makeup by Mark Lazar. When I told the Queen my name, she asked the 349 other people in the crowded theatre to applaud me, and they did.
“Is this your first time in Malvaria?” she asked. Yes, I said. “I could tell,” the Queen said, because “you’re sitting on the aisle.”
Her Majesty was right: sitting on the aisle is a foolhardy thing to do at a People’s Light Christmas panto. And even though my time in the spotlight only lasted less than a minute, I had been ushered into the world of the panto in a big way.
The Christmas pantomime is an English tradition dating back several centuries, and while it’s never had widespread popularity on this side of the pond, People’s Light has been creating its own original pantos for twelve years now, earning a loyal and rabid audience. This was my first panto, and it was quite an introduction: two hours of almost non-stop silliness. It’s downright unconventional, but the joy coming from the stage is contagious.
The Three Musketeers (The Later Years) might ostensibly take place in 17th century Europe, but Kathryn Petersen’s script is filled with modern pop culture references, political jokes, and local humor. (When a beggar receives an unusually large donation from a passerby, he exclaims “Forget Giant, I’m going to Wegman’s!”) And since this is a family show, there are gags that even young viewers can understand, like the one with a restless boy king (Tabitha Allen) whose wooden toy makes sounds like a Gameboy. Michael Ogborn’s score may not be a classic, but it’s got witty rhymes (“Welcome to the kingdom of Malvaria… Where the only consolation is that we don’t all have malaria”) and some cute, clap-along tunes.
Petersen’s script, which People’s Light tackled five years ago (with some of the same actors), takes some wild flights that bear little resemblance to the classic Alexandre Dumas story – or to reality, for that matter. This time, the Queen of Malvaria has been unjustly imprisoned, and with the musketeers unavailable, an improbable trio of avengers – a barmaid (Meera Mohan), a dog (Dito Van Reigersberg), and a chicken (Leah Walton) – decides to take matters into their own hands (or paws, or wings, or whatever). At the end, the real musketeers show up to save the day. It doesn’t make much sense, but it is a lot of fun. And there’s lots of enthusiastic comedy: Brad DePlanche and Owen Pelesh score in a slapstick scene (also involving an audience volunteer) where they play a pair of musketeers who pose as barbers and speak like Chico Marx. (Don’t ask why.)
In the panto tradition, booing the bad guy is encouraged – but in this case the bad guy, Lord Mazarotti, deserves cheers. That’s because he’s played with panache by Pete Pryor, who is also this show’s director. Pryor’s cast is extraordinarily confident, with a mixture of tight precision and loose improvisation; audience interaction is handled well, notably in a scene where Van Reigersberg solicits suggestions from the audience.
Samantha Reading choreographed some exciting swordfights, and Robert Smythe designed the ingenious puppets; both features are shown off well during a black light fight scene (Thom Weaver provides the lighting). And Bridget Brennan’s costumes (adapted from Alisa Kleckner’s original designs) encompass everything from a series of ornate, ridiculous gowns for the queen to some sexy, sleek costumes for a quartet of evil birds (led by the squeaky-voiced Laura Giknis).
Go see The Three Musketeers (The Later Years) – you’ll have a lot of fun and laughs. Just don’t sit on the aisle!
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.
The Three Musketeers (The Later Years) plays through January 10, 2016 at People’s Light & Theatre Company – 39 Conestoga Road, in Malvern, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500, or purchase them online.