At the center of the new holiday play at People’s Light Theatre in Malvern, Pa., “Alice in Wonderland, a Musical Panto,” is a giant cat played by the prominent Philadelphia drag performer Eric Jaffe.
As the Cheshire Cat, dressed in an all-white bodysuit with sparkles, heavy cat makeup, and an extremely long tail that can be twirled like a feather boa, Jaffe acts as narrator to the raucous action of the panto, breaking the fourth wall of the story by speaking directly to the audience.
“There are a lot of similarities between drag and panto,” Jaffe said. “They are both very campy, they’re both very over-the-top, and they’re both very interactive.”
But putting a drag performer at the center of a holiday play geared mainly toward children has attracted complaints from some parents in Chester County. Four schools that had made arrangements to send students to People’s Light on field trips have canceled, and more school groups that had gone to the theater in the past did not sign up this year.
The pushback from parents and schools has also triggered some people to post messages on social media threatening violence, causing People’s Light to hire a private security firm and reach out for assistance from the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.
“We would have been naive to assume there’d be absolutely no pushback given the way that the country has been,” said producing artistic director Zak Berkman. “But we weren’t going to try to hide this.”
A panto is a theatrical form with roots in England going back centuries, but less popular in the United States. The format is both rigid and loose: it is traditionally based on a familiar story, typically a fairy tale; it always involves interacting with the audience, usually as call-and-response and sharing candy; and the narrator is always a “Dame,” a man dressed in women’s clothes.
Inside those elements, a panto is meant to be disruptive: breaking social norms, making reference to current events and pop culture, and improvising with the audience.
“It is a mashup of vaudeville and sketch comedy and musical theater and something entirely distinct on its own in terms,” said Berkman.
Two decades ago People’s Light replaced more typical holiday fare (Christmas Carol, et al) with original pantos, which have become some of the most popular plays of the People’s Light performance schedule, an important revenue-generator in the critical holiday season.
This year, the theater took a critical look at the format, and the Dame character proved to be problematic: the man in a dress, often shown as a very masculine man awkwardly wearing feminine attire, was the butt of too many jokes, becoming an object of derision.
Berkman brought in a new writing team — composer Alex Bechtal and Jennifer Childs, founder of the comedy theater company 1812 Productions — to update the old Dame.
“I call it the Milton Berle style of drag,” said Childs. “As opposed to a true drag performer like Eric Jaffe, who is so expansive and is an expression of who they are, who believes that drag is for everyone. This expression of themselves is so full and generous, it’s a great invitation.”
Berkman said most people who have attended People’s Light pantos in the past will likely not notice a big difference: the Dame had been an outrageously costumed narrator telling jokes, now the character is called the Guide, and does the same.
The difference is, what are they laughing at?
“Why are we laughing at these people? Why are we laughing at Eddie Murphy dressed as this over-the-top woman in a fat suit?” asked Jaffe, in reference to the film “The Nutty Professor.” “It’s important to shift into saying: You can introduce a person of trans or drag experience who really lives that, and that person will make you laugh because what they do is comical and they won’t be relying on those outdated tropes.”
In People’s Light’s version of Alice in Wonderland, Alice is a new student in an elite, private middle school. She does not fit in with the other students, and the headmistress is a surly disciplinarian who doesn’t like children, i.e. The Villain.
For Alice, middle school turns on its head to become a bizarre Wonderland, complete with a late-running rabbit, food and drink that makes her grow and shrink, and dueling queens.
“Where have I been where I felt like my body was growing and changing and people were mean to me for no reason, and I was in a place I didn’t understand?” Childs said. “Well, that sounds like middle school to me.”
A fan of the show “Rupaul’s Drag Race,” Childs put the dueling White and Red Queens in a competitive lip synching contest, hosted by Jaffe as the Cat. The winner gets to help Alice find her way out of Wonderland.
Five weeks into the run, Berkman said “Alice” has exceeded audience expectations. As the theater is still trying to build audiences lost during the pandemic, he said ticket sales for “Alice” are at pre-pandemic levels.
“Many other theaters are starting to call up, going, ‘Tell me more about this, because we’re looking for new ways of bringing our audiences back,’” Berkman said. “Especially figuring out ways for multi-generational audiences to come.”
The pushback against “Alice” began with masks.
Children from the West Chester School District had the opportunity to attend “Alice” on a class trip, and had their parents sign permission slips. People’s Light requires audience members to wear masks, providing masks to anyone who arrives without one.
The theater plans to shift to a mask-optional policy in the near future, but because the panto involves so much audience interaction with performers walking into the aisles of the audience, Berkman said it would be “foolhardy” to change the masking politic during this production, during a winter infection surge.
When some parents learned their children were forced to wear masks, they became upset and started looking closer at “Alice.” That led to an outpouring of comments on Facebook.
“Your child was forced to wear a mask for 2+ hours while it was optional for adults and several drag performers were on stage with one twerking on another character,” wrote a post in the public Facebook group Uncancelled.
That critical post contained inaccuracies: all audience members, both adults and children, are required to wear masks at People’s Light, while the actors perform without masks, and the action of the play does not involve “twerking.”
A commentator on the website Broad+Liberty, Beth Ann Rosica, wrote, “I am fairly certain that Carroll did not intend his book to be used as a social commentary on gender fluidity, nor do most parents.”
The opposition was not unanimous. Some parents on the Uncancelled Facebook group commented that the panto has always played with gender, and “Why is it only now an issue?”
The controversy reached the Downingtown School District, where parents received permission slips for their own children to attend a performance of “Alice.” In a video of a school board meeting on YouTube, one parent complained that the permission slip said nothing about wearing masks or that there will be an actor who is a drag performer: “What this teacher is hiding from parents and being very deceitful about is that a drag queen is playing the cat.”
Berkman said parents of nearby Catholic schools complained to the archdiocese, which did not send students to see the play.
Opposition to drag performances geared for children is not new in Chester County. In 2019, the Haverford Township library scheduled a drag storytime event, and an online petition with over 18,000 signatures generated by a national conservative group opposed.
Berkman believes the opposition to “Alice” is tied up with the politics of Chester County, which is considered purple with a close conservative/liberal split. Berkam said the wider political divides over masking and LGBTQ+ issues are playing out around his theater.
“We know we’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Berkman said none of the complaints were directed at the theater for staging the panto, rather toward the schools that planned to take students to it. But the controversy triggered some violent comments online, on the right wing account Libs of TikTok.
People’s Light has hired a private security company to be present on its campus, and asked local police to patrol the area during show times. Berkman reached out to the Chester County District Attorney’s Office to monitor the situation.
“We have investigated all comments that have been referred to us,” said Michael Barry, First Assistant District Attorney at the Chester County DA’s Office. “While they are certainly disappointing and disturbing, nothing we have reviewed to date could give rise to criminal charges.”
“What makes me so incredibly sad and angry about this pushback is that at the heart of what Eric does, and at the heart of what this panto is, is about being uniquely and unapologetically yourself,” Childs said. “That is being vilified. Hatred and shame are being upheld: ‘Don’t celebrate your unique self. Let’s double down on hatred and let’s double down on shaming.’ I have no words for that. I find it just astonishing.”
Jaffe is aware of the controversy surrounding their presence on stage, but said it does not affect their performance. They said all the feedback they get from people who have seen the panto is positive. Jaffe has received letters written by children who have seen the show, quoting their own lines back to them.
“Just seconds ago, someone brought me a bag with a card and a little Cheshire Cat plushie,” Jaffe said during a backstage interview this week. “Someone came to the show with their three kids, and the kids saw it and said, ‘We have to get this for the Cheshire Cat.’”
People’s Light is doubling down on this evolution of the panto tradition. Berkman did not wait for the run of “Alice” to end before asking the team of Childs and Bechtel to create another panto. They have agreed and are already knocking around ideas.
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