It’s the most wonderful time of the year! If you’re into that sort of thing.
Tradition holds that the next few weeks will be dominated by Christmas cheer — and likely by Christmas hype, Christmas stress, and when it comes to the world of theater, Christmas cliche.
What starts in autumn as a theater season wrestling with big themes of life and society suddenly turns into a procession of simplistic celebrations of sentiment and/or frivolity.
Then again, cliches become cliches for a reason. Imbue the right ones with a little action and they become ritual, tradition. Wrap them in sturdy narrative and they become chestnuts, even classics.
So never mind my jaundiced, churlish, runaway-Catholic’s view. Holiday-season theater offerings abound, for those who want to unwind from shopping, entertain family, or get a refresher course in some of those seasonal ideals. Here’s your DramaWatch Christmas theater menu:
By my count, no less than a half-dozen productions in the Portland area this season are based around Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and/or old-timey radio broadcasts. Perhaps each represents a particular period of potent nostalgia, a century apart — the early Victorian era that’s done so much to shape our romanticized holiday images, and the Great Depression and World War II, evoking memories of social unity carrying us through hardship. In any case, the two periods meet at Broadway Rose in A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol, in which a broadcast of the Dickens tale is undermined by so many minor mishaps that the cast takes to riffing on the story in the style of (the then-new genre) film noir. Tim Blough, Joe Theissen and Malia Tippets are among the notable talents involved.
Dickens’ memorable curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge was easily irritated and, shall we say, not prone to sentimentality. Had he been written a century or so later, just imagine how much he’d hate musicals! Nonetheless, he finds himself in the midst of one, thanks to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Lynn Ahrens and their 1994 musical version of A Christmas Carol. Stumptown Stages presents the show, directed by company founder Kirk Mouser, with Gary Wayne Cash starring as Scrooge.
As characters from Christmas tales go, the Grinch is kind of a fascinating guy — not holiday society’s loyal opposition, as we might see Scrooge, but a true outsider, perhaps in some sense an alien. The Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas turns on how he’s changed by his encounter with the touching innocence of young Cindy Lou Who. But what about the effect that meeting him has on her life? That’s the premise behind Who’s Holiday!, which the website TheaterMania called a “salty comedy of questionable taste…powered by the kind of campy, bitter humor one might find lurking in a dark corner of a gay bar on Christmas Eve.” As the following news item from Deadline.com suggests, it’s not meant for wee ones or for dedicated fans of the good Doctor, whose representatives have tried to stop some previous productions: “Playwright Matthew Lombardo’s Who’s Holiday!, which bring bestiality, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and prison culture to a place a lot like Whoville, is parody and therefore ‘fair use,’ a U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.” Triangle Productions is staging it here, starring someone who goes by simply Daria, with no last name (perhaps her primary career is something embarrassing).
Truman Capote’s autobiographical short A Christmas Memory — recollections from his poor, Southern boyhood — is vivid and touching, a writerly gem that could make even someone like me think more kindly about Christmas stories in general, especially with a performer the likes of the redoubtable Leif Norby delivering it. Even so it’s a tad slight for a full evening of theater. So Portland Center Stage pairs it with the musical potpourri Winter Song, a blend of seasonal tunes and tales that takes advantage of the warm voice and engaging personality of actress Merideth Kaye Clark.
The Christmas holiday marks arguably the most impactful event in the history of Western Civilization. But that’s no reason to take it seriously! So go the other direction, into the silliness, as PCS yet again promises to Twist Your Dickens. That is, some of the city’s finest comic actors (including Isaac Lamb, Darius Pierce, Chantal DeGroat, Lauren Modica and others) bring back the Second City’s improv-heavy parody of A Christmas Carol and pretty much any other holiday tradition or trope that snaps across their synapses.
Dickens (yes, him again) is so ripe for riffing and ribbing mostly because A Christmas Carol is so familiar; it’s been such a staple of English and American winters for so very long that it’s like Grandma’s rocking chair — comforting in its way, but, well, worn and a bit boring. For the past several seasons, though, Portland Playhouse has been presenting it, in an adaptation by Rick Lombardo, with such warmth and emotional fealty that there’s not a whiff of mothballs about the thing and even the most jaded theatergoers come to love it anew.
Not to be confused, of course, with Black Sabbath, Black Nativity is the tale of the Nativity of Jesus, redone in the style of black American gospel, with gospel hymns mixed in among traditional carols, as originally conceived by the poet Langston Hughes. Portland’s annual production is the work of the theater company PassinArt.
Now here’s a slight twist: a 1940s radio broadcast, but instead of A Christmas Carol, we have It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Joe Landry’s adaptation of the classic Frank Capra movie about George Bailey and his life in small-town Bedford Falls brings the story alive with the help of an onstage Foley artist — that’s the person who adds in sound effects to make your make-believe more believable. Artists Rep’s production, directed by Beth Harper, features Dave Bodin, Chris Harder and Susannah Mars among its reliable cast.
Readers Theatre Repertory bills its upcoming The War on Christmas as “a night of biting comedy from David Sedaris, Sheila Heti, and – yes – Fox News.” Maybe the Fox News part is for those same audiences that still fondly remember 1940s radio shows. But actually it turns out that, while the program includes humor pieces written by Sedaris (“Front Row and Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” about a theater critic gutting his way through kids’ Christmas pageants) and Heti (“My Life is a Joke,” title somewhat self-explanatory), Fox News is the target rather than the author of the titular centerpiece The War on Christmas. Written, directed and performed by David Berkson and Christy Drogosch, it’s a satirical take on that so-called news channel’s “hysterical holiday xenophobia.”
Best line I read this week
“It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear.”
— from an essay by Lan Samantha Chang at LitHub.com
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.