imaginary beasts has gained notoriety for their impressive ensembles and inventive use of storytelling to transform an archaic medium into something wonderfully expressive and accessible for contemporary audiences of all ages. I was ecstatic to see their annual Winter Panto, and I was not disappointed, as this year's panto surpassed many elements of last year’s award-nominated production. This year, Kerplop! The Tale of the Frog Prince is a masterful use of a strong company of diverse cast members and purposeful storytelling that works on multiple levels of entertainment and humor. For me, this Frog was King.
A panto (or pantomime) is an English musical comedy stage treat for the whole family. Historically performed around Christmas and the New Year, pantos are a whirlwind mix of slapstick comedy, glorious costumes (especially with a bit of cross-dressing), and topical humor, loosely tied together by a popular story (typically a fairy tale). Director Matthew Woods and his cast and crew have been perfecting this style in Boston for close to a decade, and they feel better and better each year. Written by Woods and his ensemble of talented Boston fringe actors, the panto is a mix of everyone’s talents, allowing company members to flex their artistic muscles for the Greater Boston community while appealing to young and old alike. In a panto, the good prevail over evil, but the evil are so delightfully fun that everyone comes out ahead. However, the real passion in the play comes not solely from the actors, but from their very purposeful and effective relationships with their audiences. With numerous “call-and-responses,” and recurring jokes tied to the loud vocalizations, the cast bonds with the audience to tell the story, letting the audience members build its own enthusiasm and rapport with their favorite characters.
In Kerplop!, the non-environmentalist villainess Aquanetta (played with gorgeously devious effect by Matthew Woods) is bent on taking over the Kingdom of Little Puddle, and putting on the throne her dear twerp of a son, Wart the Water Troll (performed with equal parts sympathy and scheming by the sensitive William Schuller). However, “the good, right, and true” must prevail. The Kingdom of Little Puddle is ruled by the magnificent Her Majesty, the Queen (“I’m not worthy!”) (played with the perfect blend of camp and sass by Joey Pelletier) with her beautiful but difficult daughter, Princess Aurelia (channeling one part Shrek’s Fiona, one part Frozen’s Anna by Erin Eva Butcher). Here to save the day, however, is the strapping Prince Friedrich (played with charm of a prince and talent of a king by Elizabeth Pearson) and his trusting sidekick, the dashing and impatient Sir Heinrich (performed by Michael Underhill with the just right amount of scene-stealing thunder). However, along the way, Prince Friedrich is turned into a frog by Aquanetta’s poisoning of the water supply and we are treated to a nuanced story of the Frog Prince with the important themes of collaboration, #GoGreen!, and patience.
The fun part of Woods’ pantos is the strength of the cast and the wonderful way each of the characters is allowed to shine within the larger production. Butcher’s Princess is one of the more nuanced performances by a panto’s ingénue while Pearson’s Prince (especially her transformation into the Frog Prince) is award-worthy in its authenticity and charm. Schuller switch from the “good guy” to the “bad guy” camp from last year to this year seems to make a more rich and complex portrayal for the talented actor. Woods can showcase his stunning physicality in full drag to amazing effect this year, as a dramatic foil to the wonderful ways that Pelletier has been winning the hearts of audience members for years as the Queen.
Kiki Samko steals the show again and again as Old Mother Schnell, delivering the wise snail’s prudence and sagacity with such genuine tongue-in-cheek humor that you can’t help but want to be “her little mushroom” forever. Her patience and guiding hand in delivering the show’s improv moments, especially with younger audience members, makes her an ideal choice for any future children’s production. Amy Meyer’s Zip the Dragonfly bursts into the scenes with just the right energy to keep the production moving and her recurring theme of #GoGreen! is a cheerful athem for one of the play’s themes without being too campy or preachy. Noah Simes’ Jeremiah, the Bullfrog (leading to hilarious effect later in the show) is a wonderful use of the actor’s range and depth, however, I couldn’t help miss his goofier and endearing side from last year’s panto. Similarly, Michael Chodos’ henchbug Leech needed more depth, and his later antics and developments in the play felt forced rather than as fully grounded as the other players’.
One surprise comes in how enchanting Cameron Cronin plays his roles, delivering the Le Grand Moustache with such flourish and aplomb that it made me long for future performances from this emerging talent in the Greater Boston community. While Molly Kimmerling’s Good Fairy and Mikey DiLoreto’s skunk Coco, along with the court members played with pleasing characterizations by Bob Mussett, Audrey Sylvia, and Lizette Morris, are mostly overshadowed in this production, they are so committed to their place and purpose in the story and production that they remind us of the depth of talent in this company. When impressive and talented actors fill out supporting characters and cameos, you know that the production is a worthy treat, down to the very smallest of roles.
With so many accolades for the talented company, you might think that you’d forget about the immense work that goes into transforming the Plaza Theatre into a theatrical fairy tale. Thankfully, returning company all-stars Costume Designer Cotton Talbot-Minkin, Lighting Designer Christopher Bocchiaro, and Stage Manager Deirdre Benson make magic on the stage with their dazzling use of color, style, and special effects. The costumes are truly award-worthy, surpassing any of my expectations from prior imaginary beasts’ productions, with Pelletier and Woods battling each other for Medieval’s Next Top Model. The puppet construction by Elizabeth Pearson and Jill Rogati is a clever transformation, and Pearson uses it to tremendous effect throughout the production, even personifying her puppet in a hilarious underwater ballet. The choreography by Kiki Samko, Cameron Cronin, Joey Pelletier and the rest of the ensemble performs strong on the stage, letting each actor push themselves to their best physical ability and accenting the storytelling and characters in an exciting way. As usual, the sound design is a bit demanding, with some loud underscoring levels disrupting the panto’s action, but it is such a masterful score of sound and music that you can’t help wanting a mixtape of Deirdre Benson and Matthew Wood’s brainchild of aquatic sounds and tunes.
KerPlop! runs a bit long for my tastes, well exceeding the two-mark with one intermission, though I think that the younger audience members were more attentive than even I was on the edge of my seat. With so much excitement, a whirlwind of colors and personalities, and the familiar (yet, improved) story of The Frog Prince, KerPlop! succeeds as one of the best pantos to date by developing stronger themes, more unique and complex characters, and the most expansive use of technical elements for masterful storytelling and production quality. With a cheer, we send off this year’s panto with a rousing “Hip-Hip-Hooray!”