Xmas Unplugged: Christmas for cynics?

When Santa gets gut-punched and an elf gets tied up in a warehouse, you have to save Christmas yourself.

How about a little friendly Christmas competition? Who—PCS or Artists Rep—spends this season giving Christmas icons the soundest trouncing?

Portland Center Stage is a strong contender, having spent several seasons sledding the slippery slope from purist “Christmas Carol,” to “Christmas Story”‘s lighthearted tale of innocence-lost, to “Santaland Diaries‘” snide exposure of Christmas commerce. The company tumbled even further this year, keeping “Diaries” but swapping out “Story” for “Twist Your Dickens,” the Second City’s hilarious but highly irreverent set of yuletide spoof sketches. In “Twist,” Tiny Tim has a group of friends who (hilariously) struggle with rickets and paralysis. George Bailey (amusingly) stumbles snow-addled into scenes that shouldn’t include him. The three kings argue (wittily) over the moral validity of giving the poor “handouts.” The resultant laughs are wryly, winkingly misanthropic, crafted to entertain the part of audience consciousness that’s a little “over” the Christmas clichés.

In "The Reason for the Season," Deanna (Foss Curtis) and James (Chris Murray) gang up on Kris Kringle./Owen Carey

In “The Reason for the Season,” Deanna (Foss Curtis) and James (Chris Murray) gang up on Kris Kringle./Owen Carey

But hang on; It seems there’s another contender for Grinchiest. Having long since shelved Suzannah Mars’ glittery, sentimental holiday revue and recently retired the gruffly deductive Sherlock Holmes, Artists Repertory Theatre fully commits (according to program notes) to Santa’s “naughty list” with two coal-hearted one-acts billed collectively as “Xmas Unplugged.” “The Reason for the Season” and “The Night Before Christmas” sound innocuous enough, but—spoiler!— the plays respectively subject Santa to a beat-down and tie up an elf in a warehouse for interrogation. Cue the elf trying to bargain his way out of detox tremors by granting a wish to a hooker, and, ho, ho, ho; we have the cynical winner. To quote Act II, these premises are downright “Vaderesque.” “Maximum Scrooge.”

Act I of “Unplugged,” “The Reason for the Season,” comes courtesy of Matt Pelfrey, resident playwright of LA’s Furious Theater—a company cofounded by Artists Rep’s current artistic director Damaso Rodriguez. Deanna (Foss Curtis) and James (Chris Murray) are a financially-strapped couple brainstorming ways to save face among their friends and loved ones and create Christmas magic for their young son. The stress of their situation is affecting their marriage in a typical way: James is detaching, and Deanna is freaking out, each behavior exacerbating the other. Deanna begs James to be more “present” in the problem solving, while James offers glib fixes (gift cards?) and defends himself against her semantics, but not the spirit of her gripe. Curtis and Murray nail this familiar routine—she with just the right amount of hand-wringing, he with the perfect fatigued-but-superior smirk.

But nothing unites quarreling factions like a common enemy. Enter a grouchy Santa who won’t make with the gifts. “Kris,” aka Santa (Steve Coker), is less like a jolly old elf than a put-out cable guy—and since certain parameters haven’t been met, he explains, he’s not obligated to service the home. Deanna and James’s son is sleeping in the next room. They want him to awake to a generous Christmas spread. Together, the couple cracks a can of whup-ass on their uncooperative guest in an epic brawl that director Rusty Tennant, also a fight choreographer, must have been delighted to plan. Only when Deanna and James come up for air do they think to ask: Is it wrong to murder a myth? Parallel questions—Is it advantageous? Profitable? Wise?—are implicit. In other words, when you’re technically too old or jaded for Santa, does he cease to serve you, or can you still eke some value out of him? “Reason” ends with a burst of surprise and a mixed message.

Act II, “The Night Before Christmas,” by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, poses British theater’s usual challenges and insights for American actors and audience. Not only do actors have to get the accents, but the audience has to GET the accents, as a clue about each characters’ region and social rank. Linguistics quickly reveal that Simon (Steve Coker) is the boss of Gary (Chris Murray), who in turn tops Cherry (Luisa Sermol)…and that the Elf (Jill Westerby) is a whole other animal. Why? Because Sy’s pronunciation is closest to the Queen’s English, Gary’s is by comparison a bit Cockney, Cherry’s is even choppier, and the Elf has a northern lilt, putting him closer to leprechaun land and hence to English/Irish antipathy.

Compared to Act I’s physical throwdown, this play employs minimal force and more diplomacy. Gary has detained an elf in Sy’s warehouse, and the two are deciding what to do with him, what to ask him, and whether or not to believe his answers. Cherry, Gary’s goodtime gal, arrives on the scene with her own perpendicular agenda, leaving all parties overwhelmed with dilemmas.

Director Louanne Moldovan has, overall, expertly juggled the characters’ competing interests. The actors’ affectations are brilliant, though their accents wax and wane. Sermol as Cherry is believably bawdy and disarmingly warm, Murray as Gary makes his second credible turn as a burdened middleman, and Coker as Sy deftly combines a highbrow attitude with a problem-solver’s pragmatism. But Westerby is (rightly) the center of attention, nailing both accent and demeanor, and gender-bending to boot. Slouching and pouting like an angry teen, then pleading like an innocent child, the tiny elf manipulates his three captors until they’ve questioned everything from the logistics of Santa’s toy delivery system, to the existence of magic, to the dubious wisdom of making wishes.

Verging on a philosophical treatise, though easier to take thanks to its uncanny humor, “Night Before” makes provocative musings about magical thinking versus human experience: “When you’re a kid, all you want is that plastic crap. It’s not until you’re an adult that you start wanting miracles.” “Is it me that’s changed, or is it Christmas?”

It’s tempting to dub ART’s raucous holiday two-fer—amid this theater season’s larger culture of yuletide backlash—a rebellious bid for attention. But the ideas that linger after “Xmas Unplugged”’s hilarity subsides merit further mulling. By letting Christmas tropes go this dark, both playwrights dare us to find our own bright side.

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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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