Thursday, December 13, 2018

The "stunned tourist" debuts on London stage

Christmas pantomimes in London: a primer for foreign tourists
4thwall completely smashed

I made my London stage debut last December at the Kings Head Theatre in the Charles Court Opera production of King Tut’s Tomb. My performance in the role of “stunned tourist” was touted as “good fun,” by one particularly drunk audience member and “smashing, darling,” by the tiny theatre’s manager and intermission snack seller. This was a very short run for my character, about 20 minutes to be precise, but the experience will last a lifetime and just might encourage me to try again this year.

The Kings Head is located in the Islington section of London. To get to the theatre, it is necessary to cross the interior of the historic Kings Head Pub itself. Jammed with inebriated people, this was no easy task as we dodged beer mugs passed overhead and left the ancient floorboards wet with the snow that had just begun falling outside. We emerged a bit disheveled, and entered a doorway cloaked in a velvet curtain. Inside the theatre, there is bench seating for about 75 people. Let’s call the space intimate as the stage is very close to the seats. There is no room for bulky coats or modesty. This audience would become our new best friends for the next few hours. We did not know that a prerequisite of attending such a performance is to have consumed many alcoholic beverages prior to the start of the show, which would prove problematic for me later.

The room was very close and I fought down my inner claustrobic. When the lights dimmed and the show began we quickly caught on that this intimacy was intentional and greatly added to the expected audience participation. We hissed at the villain and groaned in sympathy with the heroine. We laughed hysterically at the corny jokes and double entendres. There was twerking, hip hop dancing, rapping, arias and personal asides. We cheered wildly at the astonishing skill of the performers, who also happen to be classically trained in opera. We felt very much part of the experience and enjoyed it thoroughly.

King Tut was a pantomime production, which confused this theatre-going New Yorker because the word pantomime has a very different meaning in British vernacular. To the average American, pantomime refers to a soundless, brightly physical performance often done by someone dressed in a striped shirt, wearing white face make up and a beret. In merry olde England, a pantomime (or panto) is a theatrical musical Christmas season treat featuring clever dialogue, witty lyrics and physical comedy. Think Monty Python. Usually based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or story, the panto features a series of characters including the dame (played by a cross dressing man), the main male character (played by a young woman), the main female character (played by a woman), a villain, and an animal or fantastical creature. King Tut featured a sassy camel who would periodically sing out looking for an audience response, “my hump, my hump, my (audience sings) sexy lady hump.”

Why Christmas? Pantos may have evolved from the Tudor post-Christmas “feast of fools,” when a Lord of Misrule was chosen from a noble household in a role reversal where the servant played master of the manor for the day. Thus the entire household was turned upside down with the day’s lord demanding certain favors and making outrageous decrees. This was done all in good fun, of course, and evolved into the well-loved tradition of cross-dressing characters playing time honored stories encouraged by booing and singing audience members. As a holiday treat, many pantos are performed for family audiences with cleverly concealed political jabs and snarky social commentary disguised as silly jokes that make the kids giggle with delight. Other productions are aimed directly at adult audiences, no holds barred.

At intermission, the audience was encouraged to collect the drinks at the bar that they had ordered in advance and to buy an ice cream, oddly, the only refreshment on offer. It turns out that we have the Victorians to thank for this interval treat: it is quietly consumed, has no odor, appeals to all audiences. When we settled back into our places for the second act the energy level was high on the stage and in the audience. In addition to the audience participation, there can also be physical interaction between the actors and the folks in the seats. A common practice is a pie in the face or other slapstick element. In Tut, the camel would “spit” into the audience, drenching the first few rows. The play within the play here featured a game show contest where two audience members were called by name to join the actors onstage. Guess who was one of them?

Normally, I am not shy or nervous addressing a group, but in this case, I was completely out of character. My participation in this show, came as a total surprise and I was thoroughly stunned. My husband captured the whole, painful thing on video and I am stiff and sweating under the hot stage lights. The actors were enjoying my dismay and a few people in the front row yelled their encouragement to me while trying not to spill their drinks. Unfortunately for me, we were the only sober people in the room. I suspect I was chosen because I had phoned the box office earlier in the day to secure the last-minute tickets. I actually spoke to a human who may have recognized my non-native accent and shrewdly figured this would add to the fun. 

My role was a participant on the game show which success would ultimately help get the time traveling characters back to the place they wanted to go. No pressure here, I could not fail. I flailed, I froze. The camel stood at my shoulder and fed me answers to the silly questions, his warm breath in my ear only adding to my discomfort. One of the game challenges featured a series of completely random items passing by a window cut into the set directly in front of my face. My task was to recall as many of these unrelated things as I could. Here the culture clash became downright bizarre as my brain struggled to recognize prawn crisps (shrimp flavored potato chips), a box of French letters (condoms), and Cadbury’s Dairy milk (chocolate bar), to name just a few.  I was surprised to “win” and my prize was yet more agonizing time onstage as the group presented another game for me to blunder through. The drunkest woman in the first row gave me all the answers and inspiration I needed and I was finally released from my position centerstage, to loud applause. I was patted, touched and congratulated on my way back to my seat. I was overcome with delighted embarrassment, a very strange feeling indeed.

When I read the bios of the performers I was impressed to see that most of their credentials are loftier than this “of the people” show. They are accomplished serious performers in real life. Alys Roberts, a Welsh soprano, was absolutely adorable as young King Tut. Sporting gold lame, 1980s-era “Hammer” pants and a super sparkly blue Egyptian head dress, she behaved as a 20-something person would do, with energy and agility. When she opened her mouth to sing, what emerged was a sophisticated, elegant string of music that collided completely with what our eyes were telling us. It was obvious that the actors were having just as much fun as the lucky audience members. They chuckled in the wrong places, ribbed each other when a joke landed particularly well and cavorted across the stage with the silly delight of 10-year olds, unwatched by their parents.

I’m going back to the Kings Head this year to see “Buttons,” a panto based on Cinderella. This time, I’ll have my family in the audience and will hopefully remain anonymous to the stage manager. If our decidedly foreign accents are detected, I’m prepared to play the part of “wiser American ex-pat,” and will wear lighter clothing so as not to perspire so much under the hot lights and friendly scrutiny.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Can Man

The Can Man likes art and free wine 
On the Lower East Side


The art gallery is filling up fast only 10 minutes into the opening of the show. Owner Adriaan Vanderplas, stands in the middle of the room smiling broadly and explaining with great enthusiasm how the young Japanese artist displayed just inside the door, is in the US on a special visa sponsored by the Chinese government. He pauses briefly to let a 30-ish man in a red baseball cap and red Chicago Bulls t-shirt pass by. The man has entered the gallery, looking neither right nor left, making a bee-line for the back of the room and the stairs leading to more gallery space in the basement.

“Free wine,” Adriaan says, smiling sheepishly and shrugging his shoulders. “He is here for every opening. Doesn’t look at the art, just heads downstairs to get his free wine.”

The Can Man, so called because he parks his bicycle and an enormous, clear trash bag of nickel-back bottles and cans on the sidewalk just outside the gallery door, is a neighborhood fixture.

“I don’t know his name, but I’ve seen him around for years,” says Adriaan. “He means no harm and causes no trouble and maybe he appreciates the art a little bit on his way in and out.”

This is a common practice, especially among college students and less-wealthy young people, says one young artist standing proudly next to his displayed painting. 

“Kids know the schedule, they know the drill. They get here at opening, mix in with the crowd, get their free wine, then move on to the next gallery.” He shrugs. This is very common, very accepted and all part of the show.

This is the Lower East Side, where art galleries are growing like mushrooms. The vibe is accessible, energetic, youthful, but not necessarily the domain of the young. At this particular show, artists of all ages are represented, sporting many different colors of hair including grey, white, green and fire-engine red. 

A young woman in her early 20s, clutches a bouquet of flowers and grins broadly as her boyfriend snaps photos of her next to her very large, very wild painting. This is her first show. Another woman, middle-aged, conservatively dressed, accepts compliments on her serious, dark blue painting from a young man wearing a hot pink dress. This is not her first time around the art block. The connection between these two is simply arresting.

I’m lurking among the crowd on this particularly steamy evening because my son Alex is showing his second piece at the gallery. I am overwhelmed with parental pride as I watch him interact with his fellow artists and talk with folks about his mixed media work and his creative process. 

Then there is Bokov. Konstantin Bokov is a gallery favorite of indeterminate age and boundless creative energy. Born in the Ukraine and living in Moscow before arriving and staying in New York in 1974, Bokov is the elder statesman in the gallery. He quietly makes his way around the room, connecting with the other artists, mostly younger and greener, like a priest conferring benevolent blessings. Bokov’s pieces are subtly evocative, derived from trash and “found items.” A favorite at this show is his multi-media creation featuring a banged-up dust pan and broom, mounted on a well-used cutting board, all rescued from sidewalk trash cans, and painted to resemble a Cheshire-like cat. To say he is prolific is understatement and Adriaan is a huge fan and major collector, with hundreds of Bokovs on the walls and in his storage room.

Adriaan is originally from Vienna but reminds you of an aging California surfer. He is handsome with kind blue eyes and a greying, honeybrown ponytail. Though not an artist himself, he is earnest and passionate about art, bringing artists together, encouraging collaborations and giving young people a chance. 

It is a singular experience for any artist to say they have shown their work at a New York City art gallery. Unless your sister-in-law or neighbor’s cousin is in the business, it is a mysterious and mystical process to get a piece hung in a gallery show. Adriaan changes his shows every few weeks, often issuing an open call for artists to submit samples to him. He invites many artists back repeatedly and permanently displays Bokov, who always shows up at an opening. You can count on seeing Bokov, and the Can Man.

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