East Van Panto rolls with Little Red Bike-Riding Hood

The popular annual holiday show takes a raucous two-wheel trip into a favourite fairy tale, with lots of locally sourced gags along the way

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      For anyone who frequents the Adanac bike route, it’s a familiar parade of images: Vancouver Specials, the odd wonky heritage house, and even red-and-white “No Tower” signs. The scarlet-caped girl pedalling across the stage talks about chickens in one yard, and tags the WISE Hall and the killer hill in front of it. (“Hey, there goes the WISE WISE WISE; I’m working on my thigh-igh-ighs,” she sings.)

      Things don’t get any more East Van than the houses, cafés, gelato shops, parks, and other oddities along the blacktop that travels from the Drive ’hood down to Strathcona. And it’s clear from the organized chaos of this rehearsal that shows don’t get any more East Van than Theatre Replacement’s East Van Panto. Now in its fourth year, the wildly popular holiday show has a new creative team driving it, but by all appearances in this run-through, it’s staying true to its hyperlocal roots. The fairy tale the crew is interpreting this year may be the classic “Little Red Riding Hood”, but this Red is part of Vancouver’s two-wheel revolution.

      “Really early on, we said she should be riding along the Adanac route to the Woodward’s building,” says director Anita Rochon, who’s helming the project for the first time, using a script by newcomer Mark Chavez. She’s on break at the York Theatre. “We all know that bike path so well. I know what part of that bike path is smooth, which part is bumpy, and where there’s that new little part past the Union Market. So we wanted to translate that on-stage: it’s a real journey.”

      Rochon and Chavez probably could not have foreseen the extra challenges putting a real bike on-stage might pose, however. As useful as it might be for commuting around town, it turns out to be a rather unwieldy device in the midst of a play. “The backstage is tight, so there’s that to negotiate, too. It’s this big thing that has all this motion but you can’t move it,” says Rochon. “And how do you make choreography out of it and create the illusion of moving?” Among her tricks on display this day? Send the houses dancing by the bike to make it seem like it’s rolling down Adanac—colourful paintings held by actors who animate them across the stage.

      Challenges, and multiple moving parts, are what the Panto is all about. It’s a week before opening night, and the production has taken over the entire York space. At one end of the lobby is the costume shop, racks exploding with furry body suits and bright fabric. Along the walls of the other half, sets are being painted; one eerie pair of giant, upward-reaching wolf paws is drying. Inside the auditorium, a dozen of the kids who are performing in the show are taking turns on-stage with the adult actors, learning their parts. Musician Veda Hille is at the keyboards, running through numbers as choreographer Tracey Power and Rochon try to orchestrate the complex bike-route routine.

      “If it wasn’t for the stage-management team and the Cultch team and Theatre Replacement, it would be chaos,” observes Rochon, an acclaimed director of new stage works around town, who also codirects Chop Theatre. “You need it to be really organized backstage in order for it to look like chaos on-stage.”

      Sound cues, live music, dancing, and multiple sets, costumes, and children: it’s all part of the weird, wild, and unabashedly goofy world that makes the Panto work so well. But Rochon and Chavez, it turns out, have set even more challenges for themselves amid the multitasking and stage magic—and we’re not just talking about the fact they’re trying to weave “The Three Little Pigs” into the narrative.

      “The challenge is upholding so much of what’s worked before and honouring the artists who have come before—and then for Mark and I to infuse our own interests and trying to situate ourselves,” Rochon explains. And that took them back to the Brothers Grimm story itself. “Our priority was to make the plot really exciting—to really use the excitement within the fairy tale.” Expect a real cliffhanger at the end of Act 1 and lots of dramatic play around the idea of disguise and the wolf dressing up.

      But Rochon tries to make the stranger-danger messages of the “Red Riding Hood” story speak more clearly to today. Rochon, the oldest of 26 cousins, was outspoken and independent as a child, always running off to speak to adults she didn’t know. She remembers her parents telling her the story of the little girl in the red cape as a gentle, metaphorical way to warn her not all strangers are trustworthy.

      “But you don’t want to say you have to be scared of everyone: that’s sort of what’s happening in the States right now,” she says. “So we do have a stranger in the play who really helps Red along the way. For us it fulfills that Huntsman role: we thought, ‘How could we have the Huntsman exist in a way that feels relevant to Vancouver?’”

      Which brings us back to our bike-happy city. This stranger holds the vast secret of where all the bike wheels that get stolen around town actually go.

      And, even here, the Panto’s keeping it real: it wouldn’t be an authentic story about cycling around East Van, after all, if there weren’t at least a little bike theft involved.

      Theatre Replacement presents East Van Panto: Little Red Riding Hood at the York Theatre from Friday (November 25) to December 31.