Had a Cow, Dude

Boys will be girls in the British "panto" tradition, carried on again this holiday season by Theatre Britain in their intentionally over-the-top and utterly delightful production of Jack and the Beanstalk. The Brits do love putting actors in women's wear. In panto (short for pantomime, though the silent aspects of this theatrical form gave way long ago to sing-alongs and noisy ad-libs), the leading "dame" is always played by a dude in a dress.

Mark Shum does the honors here as Jack's mum, Mrs. Slightly-Barmy ("barmy" being British slang for "nuts"). This handsome comic actor, last seen wobbling around in a towering white wig in Classical Acting Company's The Hypochondriac, succumbs giddily to the silliness of working a skirt, producing a bawdy character with a distinctly Dame Edna Everage edge. Flirting with the men in the first few rows, "she" honks like a stuck goose and makes naughty asides about her heaving bosoms and billowing bloomers (and what's beneath them), offering grown-ups in the audience plenty to howl at.

Everything in panto is played for laughs and exaggerated wildly. Using just enough of the original fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk to keep the kiddies entertained, this version, adapted by Jackie Mellor and directed by Theatre Britain founder Sue Birch, detours in fanciful directions. The plot stops cold for knock-knock jokes and references to Madonna's "Vogue," Star Trek and, of all things, On the Waterfront. Theatergoers take part in singing "The Come Home Cow Song" and are invited to warn Jack whenever a ghost appears onstage (as one inevitably does in a panto). Goofy wordplay abounds. "Where does a cow hide?" asks Jack's mother. "All over! All over! Get it? Pow!"

Pow, indeed. The gags are pun-ishing and the visuals are vivid and clever (the cute coloring book-style set is by Darryl Clement). It's all such fun that it's almost a shame that they have to work in and around the old story of Jack the Giant Killer (or in this case, giant rehabilitator).

Theatre Britain's take on it has Jack Slightly-Barmy (played by the adorable Kit Givens, who's a girl) and his dotty mom suffering in the throes of near-starvation. Jack takes their cow named Half 'n' Half (Charli Armstrong playing the head and front legs, Heather Pratt in the rump roast position) to sell at the town market. ("Moo-hoo!" weeps the cow.)

Arriving too late to make a sale, Jack meets the mysterious Stranger (Dan Forsythe), who offers the kid a handful of magic beans in return for beef on the hoof. You know the rest. Jack returns home, Mom gets pea-ved over the lousy beans, tosses them out the window and poof! Up grows a giant beanstalk leading to the penthouse home of one Giant (Daniel Lewis), his wife (Lewis in drag with full beard in full view), their much smaller servants (Armstrong, Forsythe, Pratt and others) and the hen that lays golden eggs. "Fe-fi-foe-fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!" yells the Giant. Replies Jack: "But I'm from Rowlett!"

They all do live happily ever after. By the end of the 90-minute play, the Giant has seen the error of his ways and given the Slightly-Barmys sacks of gold. Jack's mom buys herself some flashy new dresses, and Jack hooks up with a pretty girlfriend named Dinky (Pratt). Nobody dies onstage. But there is a character who doesn't return for curtain calls. In the hands of the Stranger, we can only assume that Half 'n' Half got creamed. Pow!

Looming in front of us theater critics every December is the annual tour into the special hell that is the tinsel and treacle of Dickensiana. Dallas Theater Center stages a formal and lavish A Christmas Carol (some years better than others...last year's featured weird zombies rising from a graveyard). Pocket Sandwich Theatre revives its melodrama-style Ebenezer Scrooge. And a glimpse of Christmas Future tells us they'll just keep doing these shows as long as patrons keep forking over the farthings to see them. (They are big moneymakers at both houses.)

It's a treat, then, when a theater tries something new. Or in the case of Classical Acting Company, tries a new gloss on an old classic. Last Christmas saw the premiere at Classical of Lee Trull's graceful adaptation of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. It turned out to be the troupe's most popular show of the year--and its most well-regarded by critics, including this one--so it's back with the same three-person cast for another holiday run.

What a nice production it is, and this year it seems to have matured on several levels. Steven Walters (on loan from his own Second Thought Theatre company) and Elise Reynard (one of the area's busiest actresses right now) play James and Della, a young married couple struggling to make a good Christmas on very little money in old New York. He's a writer of magazine stories. She's a fragile beauty given to long spells of window-gazing, which she calls "losing time." And together they live on love and little else.

To stretch out O. Henry's short-short story The Gift of the Magi, Trull, a Dallas actor and playwright, has woven in other bits of the author's work. From the character of a narrator (played by Classical Acting co-founder Emily Gray), we hear lengthy descriptions of life in 1907 Manhattan and get the context in which James and Della have landed in a rundown $8-a-week apartment furnished with a saggy, dun-colored couch and a threadbare Oriental rug. They are "two young souls, married to each other, married to poverty and to 4 million strangers," says Gray as the narrator.

About halfway into the story of James, Della and their forsworn pact not to spend money on Christmas gifts, Magi is interrupted so that James can tell another O. Henry tale, Compliments of the Season. Trull has him relate the saga of gang toughs who ransom a child's toy back to a wealthy family as though it were one of his own new magazine submissions. It's a funny little tale, made only a little less entertaining in this performance by the intrusion of some recorded New Age flamenco on Matthew Gray's too insistent sound design. (Gray also directed.)

That's a minor flaw in a production that holds many joys, most notably the heartfelt, carefully crafted performances of Reynard and Walters. This pair recently appeared together in Second Thought's provocative staging of Eric Bogosian's Humpty Dumpty, and they've developed an easy and believable onstage rapport. As Della and James, they waltz delicately around a sparsely furnished room, holding each other closely, gazing lovingly into each other's eyes. It's one of those special moments of live theater that makes you happy to be in the room.

Perhaps the best thing Classical's Gift of the Magi has going for it is its efficiency. Lasting just 65 minutes, it's just long enough to feel like an evening of theater but not so long as to produce droopy eyelids after a day of big-box shopping. It might be a little wordy and sentimental for the littlest angels--take them to Jack and the Beanstalk instead. But for anyone else who craves a little Christmas show without a Scrooge in it, Magi is pure magic.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner