East Van Panto takes satirical trip to the Land of Oz

Playwright Marcus Youssef and star Christine Quintana help put a new political twist on this ’hood tradition

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      Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef has done a lot of things over his career. For one, in 2017, he won the highest Canadian honour in his field, the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre. His Winners & Losers, written with James Long, has toured the globe, and now film director Mina Shum is making it into a movie. He was recently in Berlin, where his play Jabber, about a hijab-wearing teen trying to fit into high school, just saw a successful opening and will run for the next five months. And his collaboration with Niall McNeill, King Arthur’s Night, is set for a run in Hong Kong this spring.

      Those are big deals, no doubt, but there’s one thing he’s longed to write—an East Van Panto. And he’s finally getting to try his hand at the warped, satirical holiday tradition this year.

      “I wanted secretly to be asked to write a Panto from the beginning,” says Youssef, sitting outside Strathcona’s Russian Hall during a rehearsal break on a recent sunny day. “It’s getting to write absurdity and politics and satire about this neighbourhood I’ve lived in for 30 years.…Being able to pay homage to my home, and in the community of these artists who are really like family, is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

      Earlier incarnations of the East Van Panto, based on the wacky British tradition, delivered hyperlocal spins on familiar fairy tales. But when Youssef discovered that The Wizard of Oz is used occasionally in U.K. pantos, he knew he’d found his inspiration. And the ideas, apparently, flowed fast and furiously from there.

      “Honestly, for me the first idea was the scarecrow—and what’s he gonna be stuffed with in East Van? And then with the legalization happening… So we have Stoned Crow whose job is to scare under-19s away from Eggs Canna.”

      Cue a Munchkinland centred at Nanaimo and Hastings, a Wicked Witch who bears a striking resemblance to a certain Alberta premier, and a pipeline threatening to burst. Youssef, some of whose works—like The Adventures of Ali and Ali and the Axes of Evil—have eagerly torn down institutions, taken on the corporatization of our world, and bitten into politics, is clearly feeling at home with the material.

      Christine Quintana as Dorothy
      Tim Matheson


      It’s serendipitous, to say the least, that Christine Quintana will play Dorothy in this eagerly anticipated Panto. Last year, as one of the duties that went with his Siminovitch prize, Youssef chose her as his protégé playwright. At the moment, she’s filling in for him as interim artistic director of Neworld Theatre, as Youssef takes an administrative leave. Among her own achievements, she recently came back from a yearlong stint as the Urjo Kareda Emerging Artist Resident at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. Performing in her first East Van Panto is something she’s also wanted to do for years—especially since she cut her teeth as a young actor in Metro Theatre’s traditional, British-style pantos, and because she grew up on this side of town. The whole experience with this new show is, all too fittingly, reminding her there’s no place like home.

      “It was really meaningful for me to do this, because I spent the last year in Toronto, so I missed last year’s Panto and last year’s everything, and it sort of feels like the end of the movie, where I’m back in my apartment in Vancouver,” says the artist, sitting outside at the nearby Union Café. “I mean, I live two blocks down from where I grew up and a block from my old school. So I’m seeing everything anew and appreciating it so much, and getting that community vibe again.”

      Not that what she’s taken on as the red-shoed heroine has been easy. “It takes a ton of energy,” says the upbeat star, who will be on-stage for most of the time during the 48 shows at the York this season. “I’ve been so tired at the end of every night. At one point I’m singing and dancing and holding a microphone and playing with a kid.…And at the York you want to make sure every single person in there feels included.”

      What has her mentor Youssef brought to the Panto party? “I would say it’s more boldly political than it has been in the past,” she observes. “These are intense times politically, and our understanding of home is central to the way we conduct ourselves in the world.”

      Take her Dorothy, for instance: she lives with her aunties in PoCo on $4,000 a month for a “tiny tiny home”. “She feels that PoCo isn’t just woke enough or progressive enough for the life she wants to live,” Quintana says.

      Youssef’s clever twist, she reveals, is that not everyone in the Land of Oz/East Van is as progressive as they pretend to be. “He’s such a smartypants,” she quips. “But there’s something Marcus and [director Stephen] Drover do, and that’s, as funny and edgy as it is, there’s nothing putting people down.”

      At this moment, as cyclists whip by on the Adanac bike route, she’s sitting at a patio table where a cat has taken up residence. It’s stretching out around her cappuccino and purring.

      “Peak neighbourhood times, here—this is just peak East Van!” she enthuses.

      Yes, and pretty much the same thing could be said of the Panto. There’s no place like home, after all.

      The Cultch and Theatre Replacement present East Van Panto: Wizard of Oz at the York Theatre from November 28 to January 6.