Alice in Wonderland panto features a fresh, super-Vancouver vibe on Commercial Drive

Director Meg Roe and writer Sonja Bennett are looking forward to a return to live performances at the York Theatre

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      The annual East Van Panto show has always been known for its Commercial Drive sensibilities and left-of-centre take on just about anything.

      Nothing is really too sacred to be skewered, and its production elements of catchy tunes, goofy laughs, kid-friendly language, and audience interaction—often wrapped up in a beloved childhood tale—has made it a holiday family favourite on the East Side for almost a decade.

      And even though people come from all over Vancouver every year to catch the Christmas treat on display at the York Theatre on the Drive, it has always radiated a neighbourhood vibe—especially for those who live close enough to walk to the northwest corner of Commercial and East Georgia Street.

      To hear both the writer and director of this year’s Alice in Wonderland panto speak of it, though, that nod-and-a-wink familiarity is looming as much more of a factor than politics in this year’s presentation, especially since last year’s pandemic shift to an online-only version.

      “I feel like it is a reflection of the community,” director Meg Roe told the Straight by phone from the York’s lobby, “acknowledging that we can come back and be together—more than maybe taking swipes.

      “It’s more about community, more specifically the East Van community and, even more specifically, Commercial Drive.”

      Roe—a veteran theatre actor, director, and sound designer who has worked for organizations from Bard on the Beach to Ruby Slippers Theatre to the Shaw Festival—said she and her family live just six blocks from the York’s footlights.

      “You feel like you’re working on something inside your own community,” she noted. “This is right here and right now.”

      Tim Matheson

      Screenwriter Sonja Bennett (Preggoland, Kim’s Convenience, Letterkenny), originally tapped almost two years ago to script the postponed Alice panto (her first), told the Straight in a separate interview that she got “a little choked” working again in person with fellow entertainment professionals.

      “It was incredibly moving,” she said by phone. “I felt very grateful to be able to connect with people again.

      “I would guess that this will be the first show that many people will have seen since the pandemic began.”

      Bennett—who said she lived in the neighbourhood for about 15 years until very recently and that she and her two kids are good friends with Roe and her three children—was succinct in a summation of her first panto script.

      “This neighbourhood is where I raised my kids: it’s sort of a love letter to East Van.”

      East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland is the ninth panto coproduction between Theatre Replacement and the Cultch, which operates the York Theatre. This year’s offering, though bringing back live audiences, will also be available to watch online again, an option that Cultch executive director Heather Redfern said was dictated by many of last year’s remote watchers.

      “Our audience told us just how much they loved being able to share their favourite holiday tradition with their friends and families far and wide,” Redfern said in a recent release, “so online is becoming another facet of the East Van Panto tradition.”

      The Mad Hatter's costume was by Barb Clayden and Alaia Hamer.
      Tim Matheson

      No worries, though, lest it seem that some East Side knowing nod or secret handshake is needed along with a ticket to gain admission to or understand the show. The local references aren’t restricted to fair-trade coffee beans and activists protesting in parks.

      A previous Wizard of Oz panto, for example, had Dorothy and Toto landing at the intersection of East Hastings and Nanaimo, but they were transported from Port Coquitlam. And they might have killed the wicked East Van Witch, but her ruby slippers were red Fluevogs. Similarly, jokes about yoga pants and real estate probably resonated as much, or more, with Kitsilano residents than Drive diehards.

      For her part, Roe said her first panto experience (and in a revealing vote of confidence, both she and Bennett have already been invited back to create next year’s show) was generally more about hilarity than locality, despite her acknowledgement of the local connection.

      “It doesn’t stick much to the panto rules, the English panto tradition,” she said of the early 19th-century version of the British holiday musical-comedy heritage. “It’s fresh and super-Vancouver—it’s ours.

      “But it’s always about the silliest choices and the biggest laughs. It’s bouncy and fun and pretty universal.”

      And Roe added of the Alice rehearsals, “Most of my days I spent laughing out loud.”

      The card soldiers are servants of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.
      Tim Matheson

      Bennett said that, perhaps surprisingly, her zippy script wasn’t timed to cater to kids’ shorter attention spans. “It’s very quickly paced,” she said, “but I write for Letterkenny, which has a rapid-fire pace.

      “And I myself have a very short attention span,” she admitted, “so it’s a good fit.”

      Both of the panto first-timers conceded that contributions from the veteran returning cast and crew not only eased their introduction to the genre but improved the product immensely.

      “This panto is so extremely collaborative,” Bennett said. “A lot of the people supporting us, they really know what works. These guys are pros, and they know a lot more than I do.”

      She said that suggested tweaks to her final draft—“I would say my first draft was much less silly”—came from improvising cast members, Roe, and the stage manager and were “always way better than I wrote”.

      Roe said she loved working with longtime panto vet Veda Hille’s music and lyrics, a sentiment enthusiastically seconded by Bennett (“I have a huge crush on Veda Hille!”), and they both praised cast members Mark Chavez, Amanda Sum, Raugi Yu, Dawn Petten, and newcomer Ghazal Azarbad.

      “I just love watching these actors,” Roe declared, with Bennett adding that Chavez “is a brilliant improvisor”.

      The 2021 panto opens this Friday (November 26) and runs until January 2. Roe said she makes a point of attending opening night. “Yes, I’m always there; if they have to do it, so do I. It’s like a celebration.”

      Bennett said she’ll be there as well.

      “I’m very excited. I’ll bring my kids and they’ll think I’m cool for a couple of hours.”

      The Cultch and Theatre Replacement present the opening night of East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland on Friday (November 26) at the York Theatre. The show continues until January 2. For more information, visit the Cultch website.