Theatre Replacement’s and The Cultch’s fantastic production of Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto is the first show at the re-opened York Theatre; a building which is an East Vancouver parable of its own.
It was a live theatre venue from 1913 until the late 70s, and was more recently known as the Raja, a Bollywood movie house. I remember it best as the music venue the New York Theatre, where at the tender age of 14, I saw local punk legends d.b.s. and somehow lost one of my shoes in the mosh pit. After a frantic hunt for the sneaker, my stomach sank as I saw the shoe get chucked at the band. It was a long and barefoot five-block walk home. The new renovation looks fantastic—the wood is glossy and the sightlines clear. But the punk rock spirit of the New York theatre imbues this telling of Jack and the Beanstalk, which uses the pantomime form of slapstick humour, parody songs, and drag performance to create barbed satire of Vancouver’s dreams and anxieties. And kids will love it, too! The show places Jack, played by an effervescent Maiko Yamamoto, and his poor single mother, play by a Steven Tyler-ish Allan Zinyk, in a Vancouver special, with so little food that they eat dust-bunny sashimi. Jack sells their only possession, a morose cow, at a farmer’s market for some special Vancouver magic beans that grow into a beanstalk under a hydroponic lamp. The stalk takes Jack up to the Giant’s giant condo in the sky, from which he attempts to steal a backyard chicken that lays golden eggs. Comedian and author Charles Demers’ script pokes fun at everything from Vancouver’s insecurity about real estate—the sleazy condo tycoon that sells Jack the magic beans claims they are special Vancouver beans that, magically, will never decrease in value—to residents’ self-imposed dietary restrictions—at one tense point Jack takes advantage of the Giant’s aversion to gluten to escape.
Veda Hille composed some original songs and wrote Vancouver-themed parodies of some classics, my favourite being the dreamy condo-envy ballad “Somewhere Just West of Cambie,” to the tune of Somewhere over the Rainbow, of course. And the Giant’s harp, played by a transcendentally silly Dawn Petten, just about runs off with the show with manic Celtic warbles of cheesy songs (the only music the Giant likes). Pantos are traditionally meant to entertain children as well as adults, and the smattering of kids in the audience looked like they were having a great time. The narrator Raugi Yu, a gifted clown, begins by inviting children to interact with the show, explaining that they need to loudly contradict the performers if they lie. Every exchange between the children and the performers was a hit, and I wish the show had provided more opportunities for the children to participate. Any fears that the modern youth of East Vancouver were too sophisticated or skeptical to enjoy panto entertainment were assuaged by the sight of children trying as hard as they could to help Jack blow the beanstalk down. Less charming was the grown-up in the audience who kept somberly intoning “It’s a bad deal,” when Jack traded the cow for beans. Perhaps not everyone in the audience needs a voice? Throughout the constant hilarity, the Panto never lets the audience forget our city’s sobering inequalities. Many classic fairy tales were underpinned by the economic realities of their time period—the high infant mortality rate of 16th century Bavaria may explain the gruesome end of so many children in Grimm stories.
Surviving in Vancouver can often feel like a fairy tale, in both its occasional magic and its impossibility. Go see the East Van Panto, and you will have enough local jokes to tell your friends for the entire holiday season. And you might just leave with a new perspective of the neighbourhood surrounding the York Theatre too.