East Van Panto: Wizard of Oz ranks as one of the best and most warped yet
By Marcus Youssef. Directed by Stephen Drover. Musical direction by Veda Hille. A Theatre Replacement production, presented by the Cultch. At the York Theatre on Friday, November 30. Continues until January 6
I can’t say it better than Theatre Replacement puts it in the program note: there’s no place like Panto. This sixth installment, based on The Wizard of Oz, might be the best yet.
Dorothy lives with her aunties and her little dog, Toto, in a tiny house in Port Coquitlam, but dreams of living in a “truly progressive metropolitan city” where “the houses are so big that nobody even lives in them”. When a pipeline is built right beside their tiny house, then bursts, Dorothy and Toto are blasted to the corner of Nanaimo and Hastings streets. They’ve accidentally killed the East Van Witch—whose ruby Fluevogs magically appear on Dorothy’s feet. The Wicked Witch of Western Canada, a.k.a. Rachel Notley, rides in on her diesel-powered broom and vows revenge.
Playwright Marcus Youssef’s script playfully skewers political hypocrisy globally and social pretension (very) locally. Dorothy’s companions are the Stoned Crow, whose job is to scare underage customers away from a pot dispensary; Tin Them, a gender-nonbinary metal sculpture left out to rust after the Eastside Culture Crawl; and a B.C. Lions football player who’s afraid of the ball. The jokes—about gluten, real estate, yoga pants, transit, the CBC, kombucha, and the smell from the chicken factory—flow like craft beer along the Adanac bike path in summer.
As always, Veda Hille’s musical direction repurposes the familiar in surprising ways. “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” is sung in Mandarin, Hindi, and a host of other languages; Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, with its propulsive bass line and wailing vocals, is an inspired choice for the chaos of the bursting pipeline. Hille draws on everyone from the Jackson 5 and the Monkees to Katy Perry and Drake. It all works.
Director Stephen Drover keeps the pace brisk, and many of the performers play multiple roles. Christine Quintana, Raugi Yu, and Dawn Petten are all terrific; Kayvon Khoshkam is energetically oily as a couple of villains I won’t identify here; and Craig Erickson is a delightfully sinister Wicked Witch. Studio 58 students Angela Chu, Dylan Floyde, and Mallory James do nice work alongside a rotating cast of adorable Panto Kids. Amanda Testini’s choreography is winningly inclusive of everyone.
Set designer Yvan Morissette and scenic illustrator Laura Zerebeski create a mind-blowingly colourful set of backdrops full of witty flourishes, like the painting of an oil derrick gracing the wall of Rachel Notley’s West Point Grey mansion. And Barbara Clayden’s costumes are dizzingly inventive, especially for the chickens (“cheaper than flying monkeys”) who serve Notley in her mansion.
I could go on and on, but I’d risk giving away too many of the surprises—and you should really see them for yourself.