The Good, the Bah and the Ugly

At first glance, the lineup of this season's holiday plays looks encouraging. In tandem with the usual sackful of Christmas Carols that gets trotted out every December, several small local companies are presenting alternative--sometimes even outrageous-sounding--holiday fare. About a third of the dozen Christmas plays treading the boards this month tends to tackle the more secular reasons for the season with humor. But seeing isn't necessarily believing in this case. Most of the stuff is so poorly presented that it makes the timeworn holiday chestnuts look like masterpieces. I'll confine my comments to the most promising-sounding of the bunch.

Tania Katan's Holiday? Schmoliday!, as staged by a tiny new troupe called The Ethereal Mutt, is a sloppily thrown-together heap of holiday skits that are beneath this award-winning playwright's talents. The overall impression is that Katan is showing us how cute she can be, like a kid in an elf costume mugging her way through a grammar-school Christmas pageant. The result may well sabotage her fledgling career.

Holiday? Schmoliday! is framed between sessions of a mock poetry slam, and the few laughs sandwiched in between the unfunny verses come too easily. Spoofs of Martha Stewart were amusing three years ago, when every television comedy troupe in America was doing them; this one casts Stewart as a mean-spirited drunk who's never heard of Hanukkah. A skit involving a nudist Santa Claus on a daytime talk show drags on endlessly, and a bit called "The Velveeta Rabbit" stretches a lame joke too far: An alcoholic mother gives her son a stuffed toy filled with processed cheese food for Christmas, and, after much silliness, the kid eats it. Ho ho ho.

And why is a play written by a Jewish lesbian so full of anti-Semitic, homophobic humor? Katan is expecting a lot when she assumes that her audience will know she's making jokes at her own expense. Although most of the enthusiastic opening-night audience's members seemed to be friends of Katan's (at one point, one of the actors turned to the audience and said, "Who's writing this shit? Tania?"), anyone who isn't intimate with Katan's personal life will be appalled. One audience member that evening was heard commenting to his companion after the show, "So what's seasonal about hating queers and Jews?" With any luck, no one will see this Christmas fudge-pile, and Katan's career will be saved.

Local companies seem to be making a holiday tradition of tossing together last-minute shows. If Black Theatre Troupe's production of Black Nativity looks hastily assembled, it may be because the company added the show to its lineup mere weeks ago. Although BTT announced the more mundane Mama, I Want to Sing! as its annual holiday production, Black Nativity was substituted instead. Despite snaky claims that this is the "European touring version" of the musical, it is in fact a local production employing familiar faces from BTT's stock company.

In Langston Hughes' wonderful interpretation of the Nativity, Joseph's and Mary's parts are danced as a jazz ballet, and an ensemble chorus tells the story of Christ's birth with contemporary Christmas carols and gospel music. The show enjoyed a long Broadway run and was remounted a couple of years ago for an extensive European tour overseen by director/choreographer Reggie Kelley, who helmed this production. But, despite some impressive costuming and magnificent singing, Black Theatre Troupe's Black Nativity is as sluggish and unpolished as a schoolkids' recital.

In fact, on opening night, the cast often burst into the sort of giggling fits one would expect from fourth graders--most memorably when David Hemphill (who replaced a departing cast member at the 11th hour) belted the opening lines of "Joy to the World" while the band played "We Three Kings," and later, when the Virgin Mother sneezed all over the brown plastic Christ child she'd just given birth to.

All this mediocre "alternative" holiday fare sent me crawling back to the standard Christmas programs I swore I'd never see again. Actors Theatre of Phoenix has mounted its elaborate musical production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, an annual tradition that every year features the same tried-and-true cast with one or two new members and set pieces. This production reveals a monstrous plaster Ghost of Christmas Future and a new actress (Melinda Thomas) in the part of Christmas Past. If Gerald Burgess' is the most chipper Scrooge ever to grace the stage, at least he's consistently entertaining. This is high-end holiday cheer, with good production values and great singing--the kind of show that children and once-a-year theatergoers seem to love.

While family obligations may require some of us to spend an evening watching Johnny and his classmates trip over sloppily assembled Nativity scenes, there's no reason the rest of us should sit through amateur Christmas pageants. This year, skip the satirical Santas and head for the tried-and-true Dickens adaptation. In this case, there's something to be said for tradition.

The Ethereal Mutt's production of Holiday? Schmoliday! continues through Sunday, December 21, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell.

The Black Theatre Troupe's production of Black Nativity continues through Sunday, January 4, 1998, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of A Christmas Carol continues through Sunday, December 21, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Calendar and the Performance listing in Thrills.


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