Pantomime evolved from the Italian commedia dell'arte into a peculiarly English theatrical style that takes a well-known folk tale and adds cross-dressing actors, slapstick, musical interludes and audience participation — think Benny Hill without the sexual innuendo. It's a Christmas tradition I grew up with, so I was delighted that fellow Brit and (appropriately) Dell'Arte faculty member James Peck was bringing it to Humboldt County this holiday season.
Jack and the Holiday Beans is based on the familiar "Jack and the Beanstalk" story. Jack Hungry (a super-athletic and acrobatic Alyssa Hughlett) is in love (cue audience: "Awwww") with Cecily (a prim yet flirty Sarah Peters). In order for the pair to marry, Momma Hungry (a delightfully Edna Everage-esque Peck) requires that Jack sell Petunia, the family cow, so that everyone can have steak at the wedding dinner.
Petunia is an unusual cow in that she has two heads (Amy Tetzlaff and Kit Mann), joined with what is apparently a very juicy rump. She and Jack have been close since she was a baby and he's reluctant to hand her over to the local butcher (Jackie Dandeneau in an alarming fright wig and armed with a meat cleaver). Instead, he trades her to a mysterious stranger for a handful of holiday beans.
Thus begin Jack's adventures in Beanstalkland, where a crazy chef (Peck), ably assisted by Amelia Henry as his arms, prepares meals — preferably including human flesh — for Bigfoot (David Ferney, with an impressive butt-wiggle). And of course there's that crazy chicken struggling to lay the golden egg.
As with all Playhouse holiday shows, this production is addictive fun that encourages audience interaction in true panto style ("he's behind you!"). Musical and other interludes are provided by Tim Randles, Jackie Dandeneau and the Blue Lake Community Choir plus different guests at each show; the second weekend features (on different nights) Tisha Sloan and Sam McNeil's Humboldt Music Academy Fiddlers, Bandamonium and Shoshanna, and the inimitable Donald Forrest. Catch it if you can – Jack and the Holiday Beans really does capture the spirit of Christmas for everyone.
Jack and the Holiday Beans runs through Dec. 10 with Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m. Call 822-1575 or visit www.arcataplayhouse.org.
The play columbinus is a remarkable and important piece of theater, and we can be thankful that Humboldt State University Theatre professor Troy Lescher, who also directs this HSU student production, has made it available to us.
Written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli, it is based on the terrible massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. At its core, it is an attempt to deconstruct the lives of the killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and uncover how they evolved from apparently normal teenagers to mass murderers. columbinus recreates the universal high school experience with characters almost everyone will recognize: the goody two-shoes (Makenna Baker), the rebel (Heather Karns), the perfect girl (Ambar Cuevas), the preppy bully (Joshua Banuelos), the AP student (Elio Robles), the jock (Joey Lawrence), the freak (Mickey Donovan) and the loner (Bryan Kashon).
The first act introduces us to the eight individual characters as we watch each one wake up and go through self-critical morning rituals. We hear disembodied parental admonishments that begin to reveal each student's family life. Once they get to school, they tell us more about what they think of their fellow classmates, both inside their heads and to their faces, what they dare and dare not communicate about themselves. Teachers' assessments and counselors' advice join the cacophony of perceived criticism assailing the students. Everyone presumes to know them but no one really does.
Gradually, the freak and the loner separate themselves from the pack. In the safety of their own private communication channel, they begin to fixate on revenge. By the time the second act begins, the freak has become Eric Harris, the loner has become Dylan Klebold, the revenge fantasy has become reality, and we are inside the massacre at Columbine. Actual emergency services recordings combine with the students' reactions as they are shot (or spared) and the stunned disbelief of the parents to chillingly recreate the event described by the perpetrators as "leaving a scar on America that will never heal."
By the end, everyone is left asking "how could we have seen this coming? How could we have stopped it?" The audience has heard the cries for help, but is powerless to do anything. Those who have the power — the teachers, the counselors, the parents, even other teens — are unable or unwilling to hear those cries before the gunfire silences them. Everyone talks but nobody listens.
The performances are all of the highest caliber but particular commendation must go to Kashon and Donovan as Klebold and Harris; these students are not long out of high school themselves and the maturity of their performances speaks volumes for their prospects in professional theater. The unadorned, angular, modular gray set by Maggie Luc and the stark lighting by Derek Lane serve as an effective canvas for one of the most impressive productions, student or otherwise, I've seen in a long time.
The aggressive language, violent content, and raw emotions that make columbinus so strong also make it inappropriate for anyone under 16. HSU makes counselors available across the hall during each performance to help any audience member unable to deal with the material. There is also a talkback session on the Monday following each weekend's performances with Craig Beeson from HSU's Counseling and Psychological Services.
columbinus plays at Humboldt State University's Gist Hall Thursday, Dec. 8 through Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Dec. 11. Call 826-3928.
With a strong cast and pitch-perfect mystery genre notes, The Hollow winds up its run at the North Coast Repertory Theatre with shows Thursday, Dec 8 through Saturday, Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. Call 444-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Expect fantasy, costumes and adolescent frustrations at Alice in Wonderland, a playful Northern California adaptation written for Dell'Arte's holiday show, plays at locations countywide through Dec. 18. See the Calendar for details. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
Spend the holiday with the all-kids Peanuts gang through Dec. 18 at Ferndale Repertory Theatre's A Charlie Brown Christmas. The hour-long show is just the thing for little ones, with suitably glum Charlie and a poignant Linus. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Lime Arts Productions brings Doubt to Humboldt State University's Theatre Arts Building on Friday, Dec. 9 and Saturday, Dec. 10 at 5 p.m. The one-act play focuses on a pair of nuns worried about a new priest and his behavior with students. Call 760-791-3924.