Local theater stages ‘Star Wars’-inspired panto play

By Brian Dukerschein

That’s no moon—it’s a debut theatrical production.

Evanston’s Piccolo Theatre, 600 Main St., is premiering “Space Wars,” a play inspired by multiple science fiction television series and feature films, and written and performed in the style of traditional Victorian British pantomime, or “panto.”

The play tells the story of Mark Sleepwalker, a young man who wants to escape his dreary existence of working in a diner and live a life of adventure. He eventually breaks free and meets the Princess Ha’el, whom he must prove himself worthy to marry. On his journey he encounters evil queens, android clones and other intergalactic characters.

According to Kathleen Perkins, associate professor of theatre at Columbia, panto started in the late 18th-century and early 19th-century England as a response to a growing suburban audience who could not gain admittance to London’s two licensed theaters. What started as a mixture of vaudeville, literary burlesque and children’s fairy tales eventually evolved into a popular family tradition, with theaters throughout Great Britain staging panto productions every holiday season.

Panto theater involves a number of established traditions, including slapstick comedy, bad puns and cross-dressing, said Nicole Keating, the play’s director. Pantos often feature a principal male character played by a woman and a “Dame,” a comedic female character performed by a man. In keeping with those practices, Sleepwalker is played by actress Berner Taylor, and his mother, Susie, the production’s Dame, is played by Andrew Puckett.

“Space Wars” is the third panto written by Jessica Puller, a local playwright who describes herself as the “world’s biggest Trekkie” with a fondness for this particular variety of theater.

“I find it to be a very rewarding challenge,” Puller said. “It’s a script that’s constantly changing, constantly in a state of flux, which makes it unique each time it’s performed. At the same time, it has certain stylistic requirements. Every panto has the same set of stock characters and specific themes that need to be involved.”

According to Puller, panto also involves a great deal of audience participation, including yelling out “It’s behind you!” and other key phrases at predetermined moments. While British audiences are familiar with the practice, she said Americans usually require a bit of guidance.

“One thing I like to do is build the instruction into the script as much as possible,” Puller said. “I use the Dame as the audience’s guide to panto. [She] explains to people unfamiliar with the form what it is they are required to do. She is a character who bridges the audience to the action.”

Puller said references from a number of her favorite science fiction series are sprinkled throughout the play. One of the characters, Admiral Snoozer, is made up to look like a Vulcan from “Star Trek.” Others characters engage in a lightsaber duel, and two droids named Mac and PC stand in for R2-D2 and C-3PO.

While the heroes and villains of “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who” were an easy fit for the panto style, Keating had the task of staging a British-style play for an American audience.

“It was an interesting beast to tame,” Keating said. “I would say the biggest [challenge] was that American audiences don’t have a background in this style of theater. As a director, it was important to honor all of the traditions that come along with [panto], but at the same time not alienate any audience members by doing things that seem too odd or foreign.”

Perkins said the reason U.S. audiences are not as familiar with panto is that American theater developed post-colonially and took on other influences.

As a first-time panto director, Keating said she did a significant amount of research, and taught her cast—many of whom had never acted in a panto before—how to give an authentic performance.

“In more traditional acting schools, most people are trained to work from the inside out,” Keating said. “In panto, you have to work from the outside in and be very aware of your body and of your physical manifestation first, then figure out what that means internally for you [as an actor].”

She said she and the cast worked as a group to develop their own interpretations of panto conventions, especially the slapstick element that was not specifically spelled out in the script.

Keating also helped the two cross-dressing actors explore the unique dynamics of their characters.

“If you haven’t worked in drag before, it’s difficult to get used to,” Keating said. “However, [panto] is not a style of theater where we’re trying to disguise the fact [that] there’s a girl playing a boy and a boy playing a girl. Part of the fun is knowing this is someone of the opposite gender playing this role.”

“Space Wars” will play at the Piccolo Theatre, 600 Main St., in Evanston, from Nov. 11–Dec. 17. For showtimes and ticket information, visit PiccoloTheatre.com.