Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow - Imaginary Beasts
Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow – Imaginary Beasts
Review by James Wilkinson
Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow is presented by Imaginary Beasts. Story Conceived by Matthew Woods. Written by Matthew Woods and the Ensemble. Directed by Matthew Woods. Costume Design by Cotton Talbot-Minkin. Lighting Design by Robin Donovan Bocchiaro. Scenic Design by Megan Kinneen. Properties Design by Sophia Nora Giordano.
An audience is a strange beast to contend with. When you gather a large group of people to sit together and watch a performance, it kicks off a reaction that’s actually not too dissimilar from a speed dating event. The lights go up and we all go, “Show me what you’ve got.” That first ten minutes can be lethal. The audience either buys your wares or kicks you to the curb. I bring this up because Imaginary Beasts has opened their new annual winter pantomime, Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow (An American Tall Tale), and part of what’s so fascinating and wonderful about it is the response it generates in the audience. Viewers are freed from everything they’ve ever been taught about “appropriate” theater audience behavior. They’re allowed to approach the work the way children do, with a giddy sense of play. This was only my second time going to one of Imaginary Beasts’ winter pantos. My first was last year’s production of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which was memorable for me because of how it caught me off guard with just how much fun it was. A year later, I’m happy to report back that Paul Bunyan keeps with the tradition of raising goofiness to the level of high art.
Just what is a pantomime? The short answer is that it’s a little bit of everything. There’s some song and dance, a fair bit of adventure, a dash of double entendre and plenty of humor (both physical and verbal). The theatrical tradition is alive and well in England where winter pantos are still quite popular, but the closest equivalent on this side of the Atlantic are the vaudeville shows from the early half of the twentieth century. Pantos tend to use well-known tales as a narrative framework and as the title of Imaginary Beasts’ new production suggests, this year’s story focuses on that mythical hero of American folklore, Paul Bunyan. In the Beasts’ hands, Paul (Kiki Samko) is making his way out into the American west to the big rock candy mountains to set up a lumbering camp when he meets up with Babe, the big blue ox (Colin McIntire) and a collection of character that include three Swedish lumberjacks named Ole (Melissa Barker, Michael Obremski and Ly Meloccaro), a wannabe cook named Mabel Syrup (Noah Simes), a shaggy dog named Niagara (Joey C. Pelletier) and fellow westward traveler Carrie McGinty (Laura Detwiler). There are others that you’ll meet along the way, but if I start talking about the sentient trees, the giant pancake on the run from the camp cook and the physical manifestation of the aurora borealis called Aurora “Bear”-Ealis, then I think I’ll be in danger of making this all seem a bit too ridiculous. Ridiculous it certainly is, but in the best possible way.
If you happened to catch the Beasts’ winter panto last year, then you’ll know that it took its inspiration from Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. It was an extremely loose adaptation of Verne’s tale, but the storyline still adhered to a somewhat “traditional” adventure arc. The heroes gathered together in the opening scene and then set off towards a destination, battling enemies along the way. Paul Bunyan takes a slightly different approach to its story. There are still journeys for the characters to go on, but much of the play’s action takes place around the camp and I think the looser structure is to the production’s advantage. It allows the scenes to act like a collection of vaudeville sketches and the characters can focus on being funny rather than pushing a plot forward. There’s a hysterical bit where Mabel Syrup is on the phone with her Aunt Pattycake, (yes, these names are real), trying to follow a recipe for flapjacks. Line by line, the script also manages to reward those of us who manage to keep up on our pop culture. Within the dialogue you’ll catch subtle references to Monty Python, Zoolander and Sonny and Cher (many of which slipped by the audience I saw the show with).
A quick scan of the show program will reveal that many of the actors are veterans of Imaginary Beasts’ winter pantomime and I think that past experience really shows in the current incarnation. So much of the production’s success relies on the actors being able to play with the audience in a way that pulls them in rather than turns them off. Director Matthew Woods (who pulls triple duty by also writing and acting in the production) seems to have calibrated his actors to just the right level. They know exactly how hard they need to push their jokes for maximum hilarity without overstaying their welcome. It also helps that they’re clearly having so much fun with what they’re doing. The zanier the story gets, the more the actors seem to be feeding off of the manic energy they’re generating. All of the beautiful madness is contained within Megan Kinnee’s absolutely gorgeous set which functions like a life-size pop-up book for the actors to play on. With its unfolding panels and hidden doors, the world of Paul Bunyan comes alive.
There’s an incredible sense of generosity infused into the production and I think it’s what creates the sense of freedom in the audience that I mentioned earlier. It would seem that this type of production was designed with children in mind, but many of the biggest laughs that I heard from the audience came from the older members. The production seems to prod us, “Come on. Be silly. It’s okay, we’re silly too.” Together, we let our guard down, indulge, and maybe remind ourselves why we fell in love with theater in the first place.
Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow is presented by Imaginary Beasts at Charlestown Working Theatre January 18-February 10, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.imaginarybeasts.org