East Van Panto heads to Oz

Mar­cus Youssef and Chris­tine Quin­tana help put new twist on ’hood tra­di­tion Janet Smith

The Georgia Straight - - HOLIDAY ARTS - By

Van­cou­ver play­wright Mar­cus Youssef has done a lot of things over his ca­reer. For one, in 2017, he won the high­est Cana­dian hon­our in his field, the Simi­novitch Prize in The­atre. His Win­ners & Losers, writ­ten with James Long, has toured the globe, and now film di­rec­tor Mina Shum is mak­ing it into a movie. He was re­cently in Ber­lin, where his play Jab­ber, about a hi­jab­wear­ing teen try­ing to fit into high school, just saw a suc­cess­ful open­ing and will run for the next five months. And his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Niall Mc­neill, King Arthur’s Night, is set for a run in Hong Kong this spring.

Those are big deals, no doubt, but there’s one thing he’s longed to write— an East Van Panto. And he’s fi­nally get­ting to try his hand at the warped, satir­i­cal hol­i­day tra­di­tion this year.

“I wanted se­cretly to be asked to write a Panto from the be­gin­ning,” says Youssef, sit­ting out­side Strath­cona’s Rus­sian Hall dur­ing a re­hearsal break on a re­cent sunny day. “It’s get­ting to write ab­sur­dity and pol­i­tics and satire about this neigh­bour­hood I’ve lived in for 30 years.…be­ing able to pay homage to my home, and in the com­mu­nity of these artists who are re­ally like fam­ily, is some­thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

Ear­lier in­car­na­tions of the East Van Panto, based on the wacky Bri­tish tra­di­tions de­liv­ered hy­per­local spins on fa­mil­iar fairy tales. But when Youssef dis­cov­ered that The Wizard of Oz is used oc­ca­sion­ally in U.K. pan­tos, he knew he’d found his in­spi­ra­tion. And the ideas, ap­par­ently, flowed fast and fu­ri­ously from there.

“Hon­estly, for me the first idea was the scare­crow—and what’s he gonna be stuffed with in East Van? And then with the le­gal­iza­tion hap­pen­ing… So we have Stoned Crow whose job is to scare un­der-19s away from Eggs Canna.”

Cue a Munchkin­land cen­tred at Nanaimo and Hast­ings, a Wicked Witch who bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance to a cer­tain Al­berta premier, and a pipe­line threat­en­ing to burst. Youssef, some of whose works—like The Ad­ven­tures of Ali and Ali and the Axes of Evil—have ea­gerly torn down in­sti­tu­tions, taken on the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of our world, and bit­ten into pol­i­tics, is clearly feel­ing at home with the ma­te­rial.

IT’S SERENDIP­I­TOUS, to say the least, that Chris­tine Quin­tana will play Dorothy in this ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated Panto. Last year, as one of the du­ties that went with his Simi­novitch prize, Youssef chose her as his pro­tégé play­wright. At the mo­ment, she’s fill­ing in for him as in­terim artis­tic di­rec­tor of Ne­world The­atre, as Youssef takes an ad­min­is­tra­tive leave. Among her own achieve­ments, she re­cently came back from a year­long stint as the Urjo Kareda Emerg­ing Artist Res­i­dent at Toronto’s Tar­ragon The­atre. Per­form­ing in her first East Van Panto is some­thing she’s also wanted to do for years—es­pe­cially since she cut her teeth as a young ac­tor in Metro The­atre’s tra­di­tional, Bri­tish­style pan­tos, and be­cause she grew up on this side of town. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence with this new show is, all too fit­tingly, re­mind­ing her there’s no place like home.

“It was re­ally mean­ing­ful for me to do this, be­cause I spent the last year in Toronto, so I missed last year’s Panto and last year’s ev­ery­thing, and it sort of feels like the end of the movie, where I’m back in my apart­ment in Van­cou­ver,” says the artist, sit­ting out­side at the nearby Union Café. “I mean, I live two blocks down from where I grew up and a block from my old school. So I’m see­ing ev­ery­thing anew and ap­pre­ci­at­ing it so much, and get­ting that com­mu­nity vibe again.”

Not that what she’s taken on as the red-shoed heroine has been easy. “It takes a ton of en­ergy,” says the up­beat star, who will be on-stage for most of the time dur­ing the 48 shows at the York this sea­son. “I’ve been so tired at the end of ev­ery night. At one point I’m singing and danc­ing and hold­ing a mi­cro­phone and play­ing with a kid.…and at the York you want to make sure ev­ery sin­gle per­son in there feels in­cluded.”

What has her men­tor Youssef brought to the Panto party? “I would say it’s more boldly po­lit­i­cal than it has been in the past,” she ob­serves. “These are in­tense times po­lit­i­cally, and our un­der­stand­ing of home is cen­tral to the way we con­duct our­selves in the world.”

Take her Dorothy, for in­stance: she lives with her aun­ties in Poco on $4,000 a month for a “tiny tiny home”. “She feels that Poco isn’t just woke enough or pro­gres­sive enough for the life she wants to live,” Quin­tana says.

Youssef’s clever twist, she re­veals, is that not ev­ery­one in the Land of Oz/ East Van is as pro­gres­sive as they pre­tend to be. “He’s such a smar­ty­pants,” she quips. “But there’s some­thing Mar­cus and [di­rec­tor Stephen] Drover do, and that’s, as funny and edgy as it is, there’s noth­ing putting peo­ple down.”

At this mo­ment, as cy­clists whip by on the Adanac bike route, she’s sit­ting at a pa­tio ta­ble where a cat has taken up res­i­dence. It’s stretch­ing out around her cap­puc­cino and purring.

“Peak neigh­bour­hood times, here—this is just peak East Van!” she en­thuses.

Yes, and pretty much the same thing could be said of the Panto. There’s no place like home, af­ter all.

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