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You're invited to a very silly world

01/15/2018 01:05PM ● Published by J. Chambless

From left: Clavicle the butler (Chris Gibbons), Jack (Jules Weiler), Baron Bombast (Peter Giangiulio).

Gallery: KATS pantomime show [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

If you measured all the silliness that the Kennett Amateur Theatrical Society has been responsible for since 2000, it would probably circle the globe several times. Of course, measuring silliness by the mile is just the kind of thing you might expect in one of the group's annual British pantomime productions, which cheerfully mash up fairy tales, folklore, songs and satire. And everyone – cast, crew and audience – is invited to share the fun.

This year's production is “Sleeping Beauty and the Tangley Wood,” and it's packed with more than 40 characters who are larger than life and definitely in on the jokes – think “Shrek” meets Monty Python, and you'll have a good idea of the dizzy world of pantomime.

Gary Smith wrote this year's show, and co-directs with Beth Holladay.

 Gary Smith, who wrote the show this year, spoke last week as rehearsal was about to get underway at the American Legion Hall in Kennett Square.

“In about 2000, we had the idea of forming a theater company for adults, with the notion that we would give everybody a chance to do whatever they felt like,” Smith said. “We wanted to make it a little different, in that we would do away with auditions as a selection process. If someone auditions for the company, they get a role, even if you have to write one for them.

“The second thing that's different is that we rotate our principal and supporting actors on an annual basis. Everybody gets a chance to have a lot of lines, or a small number of lines. … We want to be as inclusive as possible. The aim is, basically, to have fun,” he added, smiling.

Toward that end, the scripts are written with expandable casts in mind – there can be as many animal characters or fairies, for instance, as the director needs to cast. The tradition of pantomime goes back to the 1700s, and has – as KATS members have repeated endlessly – nothing to do with mimes in white face makeup.

Back when KATS was getting started, Smith said, “We had a script for 'Dick Whittington and his Cat,' which is a standard British pantomime, and we advertised auditions, and nobody came. We advertised again, and two people came, one of whom dropped out. So after that, it was a matter of phoning up friends and begging people. The first one had a cast of about 12. Now we have casts that are typically 40 to 50 people.”

Smith wrote this year's script with actress Kathryn Petersen, who has been part of the long-running British pantomime tradition at the People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern.

Each year, there are original songs written for the shows. “There are 10 to 13 songs in each one, and since this is our 17th pantomime, that turns into an awful lot of songs,” Smith said. “To be honest, we have recycled some of them.”

The Kennett group stakes a claim to being the second oldest continuously operating British pantomime company in the country. It's lasted so long because so many people are involved in the show, and they tell their friends, who discover that they want to get involved, too. The rollicking humor, audience participation and sheer wackiness of the show draw big crowds, and inevitably, several people want to get up on stage themselves.

Beth Holladay was one of them. “This is my 14th show,” she said last week. This year, she's co-directing for the first time with Smith.

“My mother's in the show this year,” she said. “My daughter used to be in the show, but she's away at college now. My daughter saw the show for the first time when she was in first grade. I went with her to rehearsals and thought, 'Well, this is fun. I can probably do this.' I had taken ballet since I was 5 and I'd been on stage, but it had been a while since I actually had to speak on stage, so when I first got up there I was like, 'Oh, no! Can't I just dance?' But it's always fun to be someone else.”

The young people who are welcomed into KATS can be as young as five or six, so adults are designated as “Child Wranglers” in the program each year. While corralling that much youthful energy can be a chore, it does lead to children getting hooked on the fun of the show and returning, year after year, to take bigger roles. Or, drawing in their parents to take part.

The scripts – some of which are written by Smith, some by outside authors – are loose enough to allow some improvisation, Holladay said. And topical humor is usually slipped in, although this year, the contentious nature of political life has led the company to simply give one character the line, “Insert joke here,” because it didn't make sense to take sides.

Standard elements of any “panto” production are a silly song for the audience to sing with the cast, gender-swapping roles (women playing men, men playing women), some sort of “Immortal” character who narrates or explains the action as the show goes along, and “skin parts,” which is usually a pantomome horse – played by someone in a horse costume – that trots on at some point.

For audiences who have never seen this kind of show, it's not an evening of sitting in respectful silence. You are encouraged – and in some cases, coerced – into booing, cheering, singing along or talking back to the actors.

“It's silly, it's fun, there's a wide range of ages,” Holladay said. “You can definitely bring kids to see these shows. Everybody gets to yell, so if you're concerned about your kid being a little squirmy in the theater, it's no problem.”

The group rehearses where it can – the basement of the American Legion Hall is storage for the group's sets and costumes – but the shows are always done onstage at Kennett High School. This year's production will be on Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 27 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. The group also rehearses in donated spaces at The Garage, Longwood Performing Arts, and the Episcopal Church of the Advent.

The plot of this year's show, such as it is: Princess Rosa’s family offends Specula, the wicked fairy, who derives her power from the ever-expanding Tangley Wood. Specula puts a spell on Princess Rosa that can only be broken by the kiss of a “noble man.” After sleeping for 100 years, the spell is broken by Jack, a penniless yoeman, and Rosa discovers she has lost everything that matters: Family, friends and her fortune. Rosa responds by lashing out at the very people who rescued her from the spell. Will Rosa’s inner beauty ever emerge, will the Tangley wood eventually choke the entire kingdom, will Specula rule the world?

Audiences will have to make reservations to find out. Tickets are $10 for adults ($5 for ages 12 and younger), and are available by visiting www.callkats.org.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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