There are many people for whom Christmas is the only time of the year when they will see live theater. That can mean anything from their local church pageant or school play to a top level Broadway production. For me, Christmas productions are the perfect way to start off the holiday season and Seattle provides abundant choices, so I spent a weekend sampling half a dozen of the various offerings. Here’s what I found under the tree this year.
Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is one of the most popular and widely produced holiday shows of the past twenty years. Taking on the all too familiar church pageant, this year’s production will include the six Herdman children, the “worst kids in the history of the whole world”. When the traditional director of the production is injured, a reluctant Grace takes on the show with her two even more reluctant children. The chaos and danger generated by those six “bad” kids ultimately resolves into a telling of the nativity story that is fresh and original and authentic, and that changes everyone involved.
Seattle Public Theatre is presenting this show for the twelfth year, under the capable direction of Shana Bestock. It’s a great show for kids of several ages to perform, and SPT with its year-round classes, workshops and productions for children has a rich selection of young talent to build its ensemble with. The stage is filled with energy and the joy of discovery, both in the story and in the satisfactions of performance. Caitlin Francis does an excellent job as the mother who finds herself directing this theatrical hurricane, but all of the adults are really secondary to the players, to the children who create the performance and the story. There’s a great unity in this ensemble, but Sofia Truzzi is outstanding as Imogene Herdman, the older, delinquent street kid who plays Mary as she grows from a girl who tears the head off the doll who represents the Christ child to a young woman who tenderly cradles the most precious newborn in the world. The other really outstanding performance was given by Aliza Cosgrove as the reinvented Angel Shazam, a little tornado of focus and embodiment of the angelic as tantrum. The success of this production is really in creating an intimate, original telling of a most unique night when despised outcasts are transformed into the messengers of new hope for the world. It absolutely worked.
David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” is a one-man show re-telling his experience working a holiday season as an elf at Macy’s. What really succeeds in this amusing, irreverent memoir of his brief time in the worst job in the world is the smart, genuine writing and the ability of the sole performer to simultaneously re-tell his experience and actually take us into it. Patrick Lennon does an impressive job of holding the stage and our attention, making this guy both ordinary and distinctive, and balancing resentment and amusement. Director Kelly Kitchens may not get the credit she deserves for the excellent balance and emphasis she brings to the story arc. That is because, as in all the best direction, she makes it look like the actor is doing it all by himself.
This show is much about the contemporary holiday season, about the meeting points between commerce and tradition, sentiment and conflict, the unique and the universal. It’s a refreshing story for adults, told with skill and commitment by a charming, accessible and insightful storyteller.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol” is a strikingly original, tightly written and thoroughly entertaining new drama, now seeing its second production at Taproot theatre under Scott Nolte’s strong direction. It is also being produced (for the second year) in Portland and in South Dakota. This is a show that I think will be frequently and ever more widely produced for many years to come.
Playwright John Longenbaugh has taken the immortal detective Sherlock Holmes and revisited him three years after his presumed death in order for him to investigate his most important and most personal case. Visited by ghosts of his own past, present and future, he must use his rigorous intellect and integrity to deduce exactly who he is and solve the mystery of what he wants his life to be. There is nothing remotely cute or sentimental about this abrasive, conflicted and unlikeable man, but the admiration of his closest friend, John Watson (impeccably played by Stephen Grenley) makes it clear that for a man of this character nothing can deter him from pursuing the truth and justice of his own life. All of the characters in this production are fully realized and deftly performed, but the critical mass at the center is Terry Edward Moore as Holmes. His consistency, strength and internal conflict give everything and everyone the importance they require in order for the story to be more than a throw-away mystery.
I don’t know if Longenbaugh has done much re-writing on this script in the past year, but it seemed to me even tighter, more articulate, compelling and focused than last year’s production. Maybe I was just a better audience. In either event, this is one of the very best plays in Seattle this holiday season.
Setting their sights much lower and with their intention being simply to entertain and amuse, ArtsWest is presenting the tinsel and tunes of “The Winter Wonderettes”. The conceit is that these four workers at the Harper’s Hardware store are presenting a Holiday show for their fellow workers (us). The year is 1968 and the four women are dressed in period dresses with beehive hairdos and glittery makeup. The songs are mostly familiar pop holiday songs with revised lyrics and moderately talented voices.
Because we are to believe that these are ordinary women and not skilled performers there is a good deal of forgiveness built into the show. The problem is that this kind of parody requires the actors to be very good and only a little bit bad, so that the little bit bad is truly funny. Director Troy Wageman has overdone the comedy and only allowed a few numbers (“Snowfall” with lovely ensemble harmony, “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” by the talented Roxanne De Vito) to show their real skills. Most of the show was an uncomfortable mix of silliness and overdone ham that undercut the real talents of Amanda Carpp, Kimberly McFerron, Roxanne De Vito and Victoria Spero.
In the second act an extended component of audience participation and a rather contrived storyline connected to the delivery of bonus checks from the company managed to break the audience/performance barrier and let us all feel like we are a part of this patched together event. A “Santa” drawn from the audience could not have been more reluctant, nor more appropriately amusing. In the end “The Winter Wonderettes” was fun and inconsequential, not as good as it should have been but not bad, either. Kind of like just another Christmas desert, sweet and tasty but not very nutritious.
By way of contrast, Book-It Rep can always be counted on to present literary work of substance and quality. Their holiday production of “Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant” is taken from one chapter of John Irving’s celebrated novel, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. It takes us to the New England of the 1960’s when the best friend of the narrator, John Wheelwright, has a profound impact on the Episcopal church production of the nativity story. That friend, Owen Meany, is an unusually small boy with a peculiar, high-pitched voice and an inspiring sense of conviction in his understanding of the moral and spiritual universe. Of course, the production itself is a complete disaster, with Owen playing the baby Jesus, overcoming (among many other things) a certain arousal beneath his swaddling clothes and directing revisions in the casting and performance of everyone else in the room. Josh Aaseng does an excellent job as Owen, giving the somewhat ridiculous character enough gravitas from his own experience in the world and with others to make this boy as unforgettable to us as he is to John Wheelwright.
In this hour-long production, director Jane Jones seamlessly blends the novel’s narrative (spoken by the characters within their dialogue) with the dramatic action on stage. An excellent ensemble creates a wealth of varied and distinct characters and the story feels like it moves on its own momentum, always prompted by Owen but a natural result of the investment of everyone involved. The story feels genuine and spontaneous and memorable in just the right way. The adaptation by Jane Jones and Myra Platt has all the intelligence, smart theatricality and authentic emotion we’ve come to expect from Book-It shows. I thought the production was entirely successful and it was easy to understand why audiences have continued to come back, now for the eighth year.
It is much less easy to understand why Seattle Rep’s “Inspecting Carol” with a veteran professional cast, Jerry Manning’s skilled direction and Daniel Sullivan’s proven script never really comes to life. Written in 1991 with what was then the resident repertory company, this show is an intimate, insider’s look at life in the theatre. In this case, it is life inside a miserable, fourth-rate theatre on the verge of collapse and entirely dependent on receiving an NEA grant that has been withheld pending an evaluation of their “artistic deficiencies” by an inspector. When an utterly incompetent actor arrives to audition, the company mistakes him for the inspector, and their already creaky production of “A Christmas Carol” becomes a disaster on a truly epic scale. I’ve seen productions of this show where the audience literally laughed until it hurt, but this production, while nothing was inept or unfinished, only provided mild amusement, and most often from the script rather than the performance.
I think the central problem here was one of artifice, with the highly skilled actors portraying bad actors with a little too much finesse, so that we were never quite able to forget that these self-aggrandizing players were themselves a performance. As a result of that we were never quite able to believe that the actions of the drama were generated by specific choices made by the individuals, rather than by the inventions and constructions of the playwright. This kind of farce has to be driven by a momentum created by everything bad that happens leading inevitably to something worse. The action on stage (especially with this theatre company) is entirely out of control, and in this production you never really felt that anything was out of control. Rather, it was always apparent that rather than action being the consequence of choices, the next thing that happens was always the next thing that happens in the script. Instead of giving us bad actors trying to be good, and as a result being sympathetically terrible, we had very good actors pretending at being bad, and in ways that we know that this cast could simply never be. This was one of those times when all of the quality components add up to less than the sum of the whole. Great production values, fine company of actors, first-rate director, can’t miss script… and ho-hum.
PICTURED ABOVE: The cast of Inspecting Carol at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion; Patrick Lennon in "The Santaland Diaries" at Seattle Public Theatre. Photo by Paul Bestock; "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" at Seattle Public Theatre. Photo by Paul Bestock; "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol" Terry Edward Moore and Stephen Grenley. Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug; "The Winter Wonderettes" at Arts West.