Photo by Sara Shifflet Photography
Please note: the show is deliberately raunchy and so are parts of this review. If that might offend you, why are you reading a review of a panto at PrideArts in the first place???
In between a couple of second-act scenes—yes, this 90-minute play includes a 15-minute break, which the producers openly admit is intended to help patrons get sloshed—of PrideArts’ second annual holiday panto, Sleeping With Beauty, a crew member with a huge broom started sweeping his way across the stage floor. Actor Joe Lewis, as the show’s Prince Albert, called him out on it: “What are you doing?” before adding, as the other left the stage, “This would never happen at the Goodman.”
Damn right it wouldn’t. Because this show would never happen at the Goodman. However, it’s the kind of thing that PrideArts revels in. Written by Tom Whalley and calling to mind another “classic” panto done in this space, Whalley’s similarly-styled Jack Off the Beanstalk, the script tells a very twisted version of the “Sleeping Beauty” story…replete with dirty jokes, a character repeatedly miming masturbation, and an evil fairy named Maleficunt (yes, you read that right) who probably works a second job as a mistress in some underground dungeon somewhere, among many other things. Turns out that fairy tales—yes, even their very name is fodder for jokes—are perfect targets for outre, bawdy erotic humor. (I can’t wait to see Whalley’s take on the one where the princess lives in a giant phallus or the other one where she resides with seven tiny, frisky men. Maybe next year.)
Speaking of phalluses, they form a repeated motif not only in the dialogue but in Brett Balaskie’s set design. There was even an audience contest to see who could come up with the correct number of visible dicks on the stage. (I counted about thirty, but I couldn’t see the whole set from where I was sitting. Also, I didn’t enter the contest.) And speaking of tiny, frisky men, one of the characters here is a smallish court jester named Muddles (Jeremy Cox…no, I won’t go there…) who has never thought of a smutty one-liner that he won’t say out loud, and his dialogue is therefore peppered with them. Muddles is a goofy/sweet/vulgar little man, and Cox has such fun with him that his every appearance is a highlight.
Muddles is also in love with Princess A’Whora (Emma Robbie), an almost-21-year-old whose desperation to leave the palace grounds worries her mother (Queen Clitoris, played by Neill Kelly in openly broad drag that would get him arrested in some ridiculous states) because the evil fairy cursed her a long time ago. (You know the drill: prick her finger on a spinning wheel—don’t think they would miss an opportunity to make fun of “prick”—and sleep for a hundred years. Or die: this script has it both ways. Whatever.) Of course, she manages to touch that verboten needle—little pricks can cause so much trouble!—and dies…or doesn’t…it matters very little, for the good Fairy Hanny (Danielle Jean) can turn back time. Why she waits the full hundred years to do so is hard to fathom, but perhaps it is because she too is having such a great and lascivious time.
Each member of director Brian McCaffrey’s talented cast is clearly having a raucous good time, and I imagine rehearsals kept breaking down as they thought of more hilariously wicked things to do. As is the case with any script this rife with jokes, some land and some don’t, but enough do to keep the audience laughing and possibly spitting some of those intermission-purchased drinks. I’m not even going to attempt to break down the various plot developments in the play, and they don’t matter all that much anyway. What matters is the explicit and lewd sexual humor of both the gay and straight variety, with each actor taking things as far over the top as they can…and then going a bit further.
The fact that this is a panto, with all of the silliness and fourth wall breaking they contain, helps set up a lot of that. More than half of the play has characters speaking directly to the audience. There are even call-and-response elements tied to specific characters, and everyone is encouraged to make a lot of noise (booing, cheering, calling out warnings, etc.)…and they do. (Don’t worry: audience rules are in the program.)
And if that isn’t enough, every once in a while, there is a song. Tyler Meyer and Joey Prette join the onstage shenanigans as Go-Go Boys and, beautifully led by Jean or Robbie or someone else, dance and sing pop songs (think Britney, Rihanna, Kiley, and Mariah). The dancing, by the way, is fantastic: choreographer Kristine Burdi’s energetic dances are uniformly exciting. And with clear, crisp sound design by Valerio Torretta Gardner, we don’t miss a word. (Remember in pre-pandemic days when PrideArts actors never knew when their mics would suddenly stop working? Those days are fortunately ancient history.) All of the designers do excellent work here, from August Tiemeyer’s lighting to Emma Ferguson’s props to Vicki Jablonksi’s costumes, and Anna Wegener’s music direction is outstanding.
Sleeping With Beauty is a panto, so you can’t go into it expecting, I don’t know, Beckett. It’s risqué, goofy, boisterous, and just plain fun if you give in to it. It’s also the most entertaining thing I’ve seen at PrideArts in a long time. With this new holiday panto tradition, artistic director Jay Españo has placed his own imprimatur on a venerable company that seems to be getting better and better.
Sleeping With Beauty is now playing at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, through December 17. Performance times vary; check PrideArts’ website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com