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DramaWatch: Enter Laughing

Holiday shows dominate December's theater calendar, with good cheer and comedy and a few dark edges to keep you on your toes.

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Comedy, carrying on: David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, in “Liberace & Liza Holiday Show,” for two performances only at Portland Center Stage.

Tragedy and comedy, at their finest, both declare that human beings are frail and flawed. Tragedy then says, The End. Comedy says, Carry On.

As we approach the winter solstice holidays, much of humanity, while recognizing the trauma of a world at perpetual war with itself, puts in a solid vote for carrying on – and not only carrying on, but celebrating. Spring and rebirth, after all, are on their way. Fill the table for a feast. Sing songs. Give gifts. Forgive and reconnect. Laugh and reminisce. Watch a holiday romcom. Embrace the truths behind the myths. Bring on the jolly old elf and his flying machine. Imagine a better world.

The theatrical world follows suit in December, from the great big balletic giftapalooza of The Nutcracker (in various versions all around Oregon and points south, north, east, and west) to Charles Dickens’ Scrooge-redemptive A Christmas Carol (carrying over in its popular musical-theater production at Portland Playhouse, where it officially opens Friday, Dec. 2, but already has a week of successful preview performances under its belt), tales of guardian angels and fresh starts at life (It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, carrying over at Portland Center Stage), and light-hearted holiday musical revues (A Very Merry PDX-mas, carrying over at Broadway Rose).

Ah, but what’s new? Funny you should ask:

OPENINGS, HOLIDAY-ISH and not so holiday-ish

The celebration that is Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity.” Photo courtesy PassinArt: A Theatre Company

PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s richly performed production of Black Nativity, Langston Hughes’ warm and moving musical version of the nativity story, returns for four performances only through Sunday, Dec. 4, at the Brunish Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts downtown. It’s a small-scale version of a show that in some cities includes a mass choir, but with a small cast in its Portland version achieves a lovely intimacy. The music is rich, the drama is both ritualized and compelling.

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The highly entertaining musical and performing duo of David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris are back for another shot of musical legend impersonation in their Liberace & Liza Holiday Show, slipping into the personae of … well, you’ve probably guessed it by now. Good music, good comedy, good fun, good time. Two performances only, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, and Tuesday, Dec. 6, in the intimate Ellyn Bye Studio of Portland Center Stage.

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Helen Raptis, playing Erma Bombeck on life’s little exasperations and absurdities. Photo courtesy Triangle Productions!

It’s not precisely a holiday show, but Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is definitely in the comic spirit: After all, its central character was once one of the best-known comic writers in America, with a regular column that ran in more than 900 newspapers. Helen Raptis, who starred in a streaming version of this solo show for Triangle Productions! during the shut-down days of 2021, takes it live on the Triangle stage through Dec. 17. The humorist Bombeck was known for such bon mots (and book titles) as The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank and If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, but this 90-minute play by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel also gets into more serious matters such as her efforts alongside Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and others to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed.

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From left, Alec Lugo, Kate Mura, and Katherine Goforth in Fuse’s “Our Town.” Photo: Greg Parkinson

So, is Thornton Wilder’s masterwork Our Town a holiday play? For that matter, is it even a comedy? Or is it a tragedy, or some strange interlude between? We could easily list it as a Not So Holiday-ish Opening, but something about its spirit argues otherwise. Yes, people love and lose love and die, and linger in the ether for what comes next, and yet the deep sense of tradition and love and innocence and yearning for life and happiness argues for the play’s inclusion in the holiday spirit. You can call it a foundational piece. For all that it’s considered a theatrical chestnut these days, Our Town was audaciously radical in many ways, as were Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth and such novels as The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s new production continues Our Town‘s tradition of breaking with tradition, presenting the play and its characters from a queer sensibility. Read all abut it in An ‘Our Town’ for all towns, Max Tapogna’s ArtsWatch story about the production.

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Like Our Town, Oregon playwright Lindsay Partain’s The Way You Made Me at CoHo Theatre appears to straddle the wavery line between the tragic and the comic, exploring the intimate relationship between dark and light. As the company describes it: “Using her trauma as a jumping-off point toward creating a better home for herself and her family, Imogen shares her gift of words with an unseen lover. As she unpacks boxes and herself, Imogen recounts through love letters how she discovered happiness despite a life of neglect. A love story told by someone deemed ‘unlovable,’ The Way You Made Me is a cathartic reflection on home, love, and belonging.” Further argument for including it under Holiday-ish Openings: “Audience members are invited to come in comfy clothes – wear slippers to the show, break out your best pajamas, bring your favorite blanket.” You don’t ordinarily get an invitation like that to a tragedy.

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Yes, it’s off-season in Ashland. No, it’s not. It’s Christmas, Carol!, a musical romp by Oregon Shakespeare Festival funnymen Mark Bedard, Brent Hinkley, and John Tufts, is playing at the festival through New Year’s Day. It’s an updating of a show that was a December hit last year, and is described by the festival thus: “On Christmas Eve, three ghosts take affluent society woman Carol Scroogenhouse through time and space to reckon with her views on love, wealth, and holiday cheer. Whisked to a Shakespearean theatre, a prehistoric holiday celebration, and a Zombie future, will Carol find her soul with the help of these apparitions?”

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Writer and director Jason Rouse (The Third Floor, Live Wire, the live-action Weekend at Bernie’s) livens up The Siren Theatre through Dec. 10 with (Winter) Wonderland: A Sketch Comedy Show, which vows to entertain you with “a menagerie of  holiday songs and original sketches that are sometimes about the holidays and sometimes not, and that span the spectrum from sentimental to raunchy.”

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Janelle Rae & Jayna Sweet in “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.” Photo courtesy Bag&Baggage Productions.

Do you see how close to arbitrary this is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-holiday-play business is? Few people would call Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 breakthrough play, a holiday show: It’s about a pair of troubled down-and-outers who meet in a bar, recount their particular desperations, and go on to … well, go to the show and find out exactly what. But at Bag&Baggage Productions (where Nik Whitcomb has just been announced as the Hillsboro company’s new artistic director) director TS McCormick has set the show against a Christmas season backdrop (note the Santa hat in the photo above). When it opened, Shanley’s play was greeted as a fresh and inventive shot of realism on the margins, with a deep if hard-boiled romantic streak. Shanley went on to win Pulitzer and best-play Tony awards for his play Doubt: A Parable, and a best-screenplay Oscar for the Nicolas Cage and Cher romance Moonstruck.

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The ghosts of holiday shows to come

All right, not ghosts. By this point they’re well into the planning, and probably rehearsal, stages. But they’ll be here soon, and they are worth considering for your holiday theatrical fare:

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Darcy White, right, is the guiding spirit behind Cabaret White. Photo courtesy Cabaret White.

There’s not much cabaret in Portland, and there are a lot of musical-theater performers and their audiences who pine for it: just a nice comfortable bar with some good singers and some good songs and the sort of intimate relationship between the audience and the musicians that feels relaxed and personal and happy-making. Pianist Darcy White has been riding regularly to the rescue for some time now, putting together monthly cabaret shows and inviting her many friends in musical theater to join the party. Next up, on Sunday, Dec. 18 at Lake Oswego’s Lake Theater and Cafe, is A (not so) Silent Night, which White describes as “a delicious snowball stew featuring some of your favorite Cabaret White Singers.”

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The whiz-bang physical theater folks at Imago Theatre are bringing back their traveling critter show ZooZoo for a hometown holiday run Dec. 9-Jan.1. Great costumes, sly comedy, astonishing physical movement: A lot of people claim this, but ZooZoo is truly a kids’ show for people of all ages. Some of us geezers wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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Speaking of kids and odd yet entertaining animals, the good doctor and friends drop in on Salem’s Grand Theatre Dec. 9-11 and 16-18, when Enlightened Theatrics’ production of Seussical the Musical will pull the cat out of the hat.

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Portland Revels, a blend of song and Morris dancing and old-time musical instruments and mummery and general reveling that’s been a longstanding tradition for many families, took an unwelcome break during the height of the pandemic. This year, finally, it’s returning to the stage with a show called Midwinter Revels: Andalusian Night – A Celebration of the Solstice. Set in 14th century Andalusia, Spain, it’ll feature among others the Spanish and Moroccan musicians of Seffarine, the Portland Brass Quintet, and flamenco dancer Laura Onizuka. Dec. 16-18 at the Newmark Theatre, with a children’s show Dec. 29-30.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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