Portland Christmas Theater

A/A + Coho go for Christmas kitsch

Action/Adventure's "Holiday Thing" and Coho's "Rudolph" revive mid-century modern classics...with a wink.

When Portland Center Stage “twists” Dickens and Artists Rep picks a fight with Santa and an errant elf, while Liminal re-invents “Our Town” and Bag & Baggage re-imagines “Noises Off,” which theaters will pick up the mantle of Christmas tradition? Who will pucker up under the mistletoe? Who will glaze this holiday’s ham?

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Rudolph on Stage!

Well, CoHo, for one, with a faithful-if-offbeat rendition of the classic sixties TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “Rudolph on Stage!” is the latest from Shelly McLendon’s Bad Reputation Productions, a follow-up to film-to-stage adaptations of “Road House” and “The Lost Boys.” Like those titles, “Rudolph” translates a beloved film to a small stage space, knowing full well that the effect of that effort will be naturally funny.

Though the show admits kids, it’s really best-suited to kid-at-heart adults who remember the 1964 original special from closer to when it first aired. To complete the nostalgic effect, “Rudolph” even broadcasts vintage TV commercials like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” during scene breaks.

The strategy works so well (and collective memory of the original is so faded) that several of the play’s laugh-inducing lines seem like recent additions — and indeed, Bad Reputation has added a few flourishes. For instance, prospector Yukon Cornelius lists “Luna Bars” among his survival provisions. A cry of “Land ho!” is met with a spicy, “Oh no he didn’t!” And much to the delight of longtime audiences, Bad Reputation’s Rudolph cathartically confronts his parents about their “faulty DNA” and Santa about his initial intolerance.

Other added lines simply highlight odd plot points from the original: “I have a problem and the only solution I can think of is to run away from it,” summarizes Hermey the elf before exiting the stage. “Let’s get the women home,” Rudolph later remarks with a pseudo-gallantry that sounds datedly sexist, whereupon McLendon, as his reindeer love, Clarice, slumps as if she’s fainted from feminine fatigue. But a few gems come straight from the original animated feature, including jabs about Santa’s weight and reference to him “polishing up his jingle bells.”

The wryest, wiliest twinkle emanates from the show’s snowman narrator, played by mischievous Mercury editor Wm. Steven Humphrey. Humpy leans hard on any line that could pass for double entendre, swinging the bottom tier of his snowman costume into a pendulous bum-waggle to capture maximum laughs coming and going. Another standout is Brad Fortier as “The Bumble” (aka abominable snowman), who mimics the movements of the original stop-mo monster immaculately, biting the empty air, madly rolling his eyes, and jerkily twitching his fingers. These two performances (and others) illustrate a point: when real-life people imitate stop-motion animation, humor naturally follows. Spacial choices, too, become comical gags, as when Clarice repeatedly “flies” across the tiny stage from all angles yelling, “Rudolph!,” or when a supposedly “faraway” castle is presented as a toy on a corner shelf.

Despite great instrumental arrangements by Jonny Newsome, the show’s music is hit-and-miss thanks to, ahem, variable singing. Rudolph and the elf, inarguably the story’s main characters, emote appropriately but melodically murder their duet “Misfits,” and several other numbers throughout the show. To be fair, the animated version shares this weakness, with many of its songs more spoken than sung. The noteworthy singer in both versions is the snowman — and luckily Humpy’s croon does justice to his TV counterpart, Burl Ives. McLendon’s also got great pipes, but clearly hasn’t demanded that talent of her production’s other actors.

That sour note notwithstanding, “Rudolph” is a cute show that provides a strong sense of ensemble community as well as a new portal of access to “Red-Nosed Reindeer”‘s fanciful little world.

holidaything

Action/Adventure’s Very Special Holiday … Thing

It’s actually mildly surprising that “Rudolph,” or its equivalent, isn’t happening at Action/Adventure Theatre; it’s definitely within that company’s wheelhouse. In prior shows like “Troll 2: The Musical” and “The Waterman,” A/A showed an affinity for kitschy storytelling, adaptation and minimal staging just like “Rudolph”‘s. But just when you’d think they’d get madcap, or continue in the vein of their very-contemporary and wildly successful improv serial Fall of the Band … A/A goes old school, with “Holiday Thing,” the kind of mid-century-modern Christmas revue best spoofed by Stephen Colbert but perhaps last attempted in earnest by Bing Crosby (or locally, of a fashion, by Oregon Ballet Theatre).

Stage left, there’s a piano (keyboard). Stage right, a (video of) roaring fire. Under the watchful gaze of a silent live Santa (Devon Granmo) and some animatronic Dickensian carolers, Bri Pruett and David Saffert sing carols cabaret-style, between which various comedians perform comedy/storytelling sets. Sean Jordan weighs the relative merits of visiting family versus … not. Barbara Holm cracks wise about eating disorders. David Mascorro shares uniquely Mexican-American Christmas memories, and Lucia Fasano even sings a mandolin-accompanied original, “Indoorsman,” about moving to the Northwest but not really wanting to experience nature. Last weekend, Stephanie Cordell sang a Christmas tune in mingled English and Pig Latin; this weekend Christian Ricketts will join the comedy roster and James Luster will impersonate Elvis.

The name “Holiday Thing” serves as a hint that this event isn’t as much of a “show” as many A/A titles. It’s looser and simpler, less demanding of both audience and cast. Saffert and Pruett are playful and relaxed, as if hanging out in the theater after hours. Sure, they’re putting on a show, but they’re not sweating every note or cue. With its cheery but casual tone, “Thing” may sell new visitors on A/A’s charisma, but not their typical level of polish. It’s more of a mid-season breather for fans and insiders who crave some familial warm fuzzies and a slice of gleeful Christmas cheese.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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Twist Your Dickens: notes from opening night

ArtsWatch reviews the full-of-surprises Holiday sketch spoof...without giving too much away.

If you’re a subscriber to Portland Center Stage, a follower of Portland theater, or even just an extreme Christmas enthusiast, you’ve probably become at least passingly curious about what “Twist Your Dickens” does to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”…and whether or not you’ll approve.

Well, first off, don’t expect Ye Olde Morality Play. A brainchild of Chicago’s world-famous improv brand The Second City, “Twist” uses the Dickens narrative as a very loose framework, but between the familiar Victorian hauntings, it also spoofs as many other Christmas classics as it can. Revealing them all would spoil a lot of the show’s best gags; suffice to say that no hallmark of yuletide culture is safe from an irreverent sendup. Christmas movie characters are caricatured, Christmas cartoons are lampooned, and even the Holy Bible takes a good comedic thumping. Techniques also vary, from puppetry to pratfalls to exaggerated costumes to audience involvement.

The "Twist Your Dickens' gang/Patrick Weishampel

The “Twist Your Dickens’ gang/Patrick Weishampel

Opening Night Surprises

Because the show is partly improv, some things happen only once — so here are a a few one-time gags from opening night:

  • When Scrooge’s love interest, Belle, broke off their affair, the audience was prompted to describe Belle’s new beau. They dubbed him a stripper who enjoyed underwater basketweaving and had a bad habit of picking his nose. John San Nicholas thought fast, digging a finger into his nostril, presenting Belle with a basket he cautioned was “still wet,” and fanning out a stack of $1 bills, exclaiming, “We’re gonna have FUN TONIGHT!”
  • After butchering the lyrics to several classic Christmas tunes, lounge singer “Ruby Santini” asked for requests. “Frosty the Cold Handed Proctologist!” someone creatively volunteered. Bravely, Beth Melewski crooned a new classic, even cautioning, “Watch where he puts that carrot.”
  • As ArtsWatch reported in News & Notes, opening night’s surprise guest was Sasha Roiz from “Grimm,” towering as tall as the doorframe as he walked on set. Roiz only explained his presence as a fulfillment of “community service.”

The Cast

Replete with costume and character changes and quick transitions, “Twist” would be impossible without an agile and versatile cast. Scrooge is rarely the straight man in “Carol,” but Craig Cackowski manages it here, holding gravitas with Cratchit (Nicholas Kessler) through lines like “Now, back to my usury” and facing down the crackup antics of, respectively, a dippy Marley (San Nicolas,) an ’80s valley boy Ghost of Christmas Past (Sam Dinkowitz), a stoner Present (Beth Melewski), and a prop comic Future (uncredited).

Dinkowitz, a longtime Post5 member and gifted movement/fight coordinator, makes the Gerding stage and even the aisles his playground, hamming up his onstage costume changes, ’80s dancing, and various other shenanigans. Melewski, the odd woman out, stands in on several male roles and delivers a few choice lesbian jokes. Lauren Modica, last seen commanding dual male and female roles in Portand Actors Ensemble’s summer version of “Cymbeline,” takes this larger stage with gusto. One guesses her patience for ingenue roles has been tested by her small stature; hence, she plays children with a hilariously haughty disdain, boldly challenging audience assumptions of cuteness.

Chantal DeGroat takes the opposite approach, comically exaggerating her characters’ helplessness and innocence. As Tiny Tim, she beams unwittingly at the audience while squeaking across the stage in agonizing one-inch strides. (“I’ll come to YOU,” swoops Cratchit, saving the day.) San Nicolas, ever a character, navigates walk-0ns, pop-ins, and non-sequiters with ingenious flair. The ensemble is so light on its feet, you almost don’t notice how much each actor has to do.

Laying aside Dickensian life lessons in favor of a good time, “Twist” comes at humor from so many angles, with such irreverence and zeal, your amusement is practically guaranteed.

Twist Your Dickens continues at PCS through December 22.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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Santaland’s Crumpet runs through his paces

Darius Pierce, star of PCS's annual "The Santaland Diaries," talks about his sophomore turn at the Sedaris-penned role.

In a week or so he’ll don his gay apparel—candy-striped tights, a velveteen jacket and curly-toed shoes—but today Darius Pierce sports a Cosby sweater, a pair of ripped khakis, and some white velcro sneaks. Between stacks of gift-wrapped boxes in the practice room, he’s being put on the spot.

 darius_santaland

“Is there a way we can play up the snark when you mention your ‘8 hour workday’?” asks director Wendy Knox. Later, she’ll have him revisit the scene where he does sign language, (miming “Santa has a tumor in his head…”) to see if he can’t find another approach.

Knox is seated opposite Pierce at a long table with four others: Don Crossley (lighting designer ), Mark Tynan (stage manager), Karen Hill (production assistant) and Em Gustason (sound engineer/programmer and sound board operator). They’ve got binders and bottles of water, and they’re running through the show, scene by scene. Pierce affirms their notes, nodding demonstratively even when the verbiage seems vague, cupping his hands in front of his face to brood into them.

“I see what you’re saying.”

“That felt good.”

“Better?”

Then he starts the given section again from the top, swapping in new inflections, different gestures. It’s not easy…but this is how Christmas magic gets made.

The group is refining the 80-minute live version of David Sedaris’s hilarious memoir “The Santaland Diaries,” a work Pierce first undertook last year, but which has a long history at Portland Center Stage.

“Santaland” is a neo-classic that goes behind the scenes of Macy’s Department Store’s elaborate Holiday display and exposes it as just another workplace. First, Sedaris makes us see the elves as people: failed writers, hack actors, and fallen dancers. Then we’re subjected to the humiliations of corporate elf training: cheers spelling out “SANTA,” cash register protocols, and stern admonitions to keep one’s knickers clean. Finally, we’re ushered to the front lines, where Sedaris as newly-minted elf “Crumpet” must smile and wave amid crying children, impatient parents, obnoxious coworkers, and various other precarious rungs on the “candycane ladder.” All the while, the character is keenly aware of two things: 1) his job is BS; 2) he’s the reluctant guardian of small children’s Christmas experience. And these opposing motivations tug and twist the poor elf/writer like a taffy pull.

ArtsWatch sat down with Pierce post-practice to talk about his sophomore run at the role, sarcasm versus sincerity, and what audiences expect from a modern jester.

Q: Last year, ArtsWatch pegged you as a milder, more mellow Crumpet than your predecessor Jim Lichtscheidl…and a more down-to-Earth, less elevated and elegant one than HIS predecessor Wade McCollum. What did you think of that read, and has anything changed?

A: To be honest, I read that article with one eye closed last year, because I felt strongly that I didn’t want to make any decisions solely for the purpose of being different from Wade or Jim. But no, I think it was fair. I was able to go back and reread it recently having taken a step back, and yes. This is funny; you’re asking me for my opinion on your review of my performance.

Q: Yes. We’re getting very “meta.” Sorry. What feels new or different about this year?

A: Well, I’m more comfortable in the role now, naturally, so I feel a little bit freer. For the most part we already had the memorization, the blocking, and the knowledge of what jokes and punch lines really got an audience reaction. The opening of Santaland, for instance, [when curtains open behind Crumpet to reveal a sparkling, snowy Christmas village while he describes it] felt really good last year.

I also remember which jokes never landed, moments that may have dragged a little…things the audience may or may not have been conscious of, but I still feel confident we can refine. There’s a bit about Phil Collins that I never felt like I nailed, but we’re going to get it right this time.

Q: How do you mete out just the right amount of sarcasm and sincerity…or figure out which of those emotions to use for a given line?

A: I think it’s important for me NOT to look at the big picture, or worry about whether the overall balance will be right. Because if I focus on interpreting each moment how it’s intended, it’ll add up the right way. You can’t even say these jokes without the sarcasm coming out—and yet, even the sarcastic moments are, in a way, sincere. I don’t see Sedaris as a mean-spirited writer; even things he says that seem really mean on the surface, still come from a good-hearted place. That said, this is counter-programming and it’s not supposed to be sappy.

Q: Before you took this role, one of your last ones was as jester  Touchstone [in Portland Shakespeare Project’s As You Like It at Artists Rep]. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson said you were ascerbic in that role. Then I saw Santaland and found you much more lovable than I’d been set up to expect. How do you see the jester archetype in theater? And what distinctions can you draw between the modern version you play in this show, and the classic Shakespearean type?

A: Hm. That’s a good question. In the classics, the jester was a person who was able to speak truth to power without repercussions—and our society still has humorists filling that role, though we no longer think of them as jesters. Jon Stewart is the jester of our times, and George Carlin before him.

One of my personal favorite portrayals of a Shakespearean jester would be Sir Ben Kingsley in the film version of The Twelfth Night—yet he doesn’t play it as a traditional “court jester” at all.

All this to say, I don’t think that Crumpet qualifies as a jester in this context—although it’s hard to deny the parallel in that outfit [Crumpet literally puts curly shoes and bells on]. But I personally can’t afford to think too much about the archetype. I have to focus on being the person in that situation.

It’s like if you’re playing a character that would be considered an ingenue, you can’t think about how to be ingenue-y…because then you’re performing the trope rather than playing your role. In the same way, my thought can’t be “How would a jester do this?” it has to be “How would I do this?”…and then that’ll be how the jester does it. Characters are just an accumulation of what they do.

Q: So you’re saying it’s my job to think about the jester archetype, and it’s your job not to. Fair enough. What I think is that a modern humorist like Sedaris differs from a Shakespeare fool in having the luxury of exposition. He’s able to tell us what’s going on behind the scenes, or in his head…expressing doubt and mixed motivations. We hear that stuff from serious characters like Hamlet, but it seems like the old-world jesters are always “on.” Any trepidation or second thoughts would be acted as subtext, but not stated in soliloquy.

A: Well, the luxury of exposition, as you say, is the luxury of one-man shows. Even if you consider me a jester in this show, I get the same luxury as Hamlet. I don’t have to hide anything from other characters on the stage, so I can just talk freely to the audience for 80 minutes. I guess so far in this interview I’ve compared myself to Jon Stewart, Hamlet, and Sir Ben Kingsley. People are going to think, “This guy’s got a massive ego.” I’m sorry; I don’t compare myself to any of those guys.

Q: No problem. What do you make of the fact that this show has become such a Christmas classic, despite (or maybe because of) its debunking Christmas?

A: Ah, but it doesn’t QUITE close the door. This show wants to hate Christmas so badly, but it can’t QUITE do it, because Christmas is so great! Like I said before, it’s counter-programming…but it’s not Grinchy.

“The Santaland Diaries” opens next weekend at Portland Center Stage.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!