Burly men play ingenues while their castmates dress up as animal hybrids like whale-ducks, and audience members shout at the stage. Things get wild during an old-fashioned panto. Introduced in the early 18th century as a rough, comic form of opera, the panto is “a long, lighthearted British tradition in which amateur theater groups take on stories like ‘Aladdin’ and turn them upside down,” explains Sally Timms, director of The Fifth Annual Hideout Christmas Egyptian/Cosmic Panto, playing this weekend at the Hideout bar in Wicker Park. “It’s very silly lowbrow theater designed to satisfy both kids and adults.”
Timms decided to bring panto to the Hideout after a trip home to England in 2005, where she saw Ian McKellen play clownish Widow Twankey in a Christmastime panto at London’s Old Vic. “I wanted to produce panto at the Hideout because it’s the perfect place to put on community theater,” Timms says. “Its warmth really lends something to the production. When the small space is filled it feels like you’re in a different time.”
Although this year’s edition plays with contemporary themes like time travel and the Indiana Jones films, Timms has preserved panto’s most time-honored elements—total insanity and pure ridiculousness.