Humbugger Stand

If theater is a microcosm of the universe, then we must be a godforsaken, consumer-driven society, more interested in what's under the tree than how it came to grow there. I'm not a Christian, but I'm concerned with the low state of holiday plays in our fair city: Not one of the nine Christmas shows currently playing has anything to do with, as that annoying bumper sticker puts it, "the reason for the season." Even more troubling than the secular slant of local holiday fare is that more than half of the shows are reruns from last season. And not one acknowledges Hanukkah.

I'm not asking that Actors Theatre of Phoenix revise its annual production of A Christmas Carol so that Scrooge appears in the final scene dressed as King Ahasuerus bearing shalach manoth for Tiny Tim. I know that there are more plays that deal with gift-giving than with the miracle of Christ's birth. And I'm not arguing that the story of the Three Wise Men is even particularly entertaining. I'm just looking for a little balance, and perhaps a sound explanation for why, other than enormous ticket sales, theater companies bother to strap on the Santa bag every year.

Publicists tend to mutter when pressed about the point of repeated remounts of shows like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a tattered entertainment that's being presented by two different local theater companies this month. One of them, Theater Works, has produced Pageant for 11 years with varying success. Julia Thompson, Theater Works' development director, defends her company's choice by pointing out that Pageant's play-within-a-play re-creates the manger scene. "We touch on the birth of Christ that way," she says. "That's pretty Christian."

Katie Crissman, the public relations director for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, is more vague about the relevance of ATOP's Christmas plays this season. "Most of them have kind of a Christian feel about them," she says. "I mean, Christmas is what Christians celebrate, so doesn't that make any Christmas play--I don't know--about Christ?"

Hardly. The Velveteen Rabbit, which Childsplay trots out every year at this time, is about a stuffed bunny that comes to life "through the love of a young boy," according to its press materials. The show is great fun to watch, if for no other reason than its merrily cross-dressed cast. Pretty, buxom Debra K. Stevens is Ace-bandaged within an inch of her life to allow her to portray a 6-year-old boy, and D. Scott Withers wears stilts under his gigantic dirndl in order to achieve a seven-foot-tall grandmother. But what all this has to do with the birth of Christ is anyone's guess.

Stevens makes a stab at it. "Christmas theater is less about Bible stories than it is about traditions," she says. "That's why you see so many companies doing the same shows over each year. People come back year after year, and they bring their kids. It's a great way to introduce kids to theater."

Christmas shows are also a great way to keep a small troupe afloat for another year. "We make most of our money from Holiday in Hoopersville," says Raymond Shurtz, co-founder of PlayWrights Workshop Theatre, about the original Christmas show his theater has produced six times in the past nine years. "When I wrote the play, I didn't want it to be Christmas-oriented," Shurtz says. "It's about a big American holiday, and we use the show as our main fund raiser every year. That's why most Christmas plays get produced in the first place. If you only go to the theater once a year, it'll probably be some Christmas show you can take the kids to."

At least Shurtz is honest about the gift of commerce. Most of the other responses I heard were lousy with catch phrases. I didn't speak to a single actor, publicist or producer for this article who didn't use the phrase "It's a show the whole family can enjoy" in explaining why they're presenting a play about a stuffed rabbit or a crippled child or a talking bear. Don't families enjoy themselves the rest of the year? I wanted to ask. And what about families who happen to be Hindu or Moslem or Jewish?

"As far as holiday plays go, Jewish people don't seem to exist," moans Janet Arnold, producing director of Arizona Jewish Theatre Company. Arnold's company presented an annual Hanukkah play, The Odd Potato, for several years, but the production rarely made back its cost and AJTC discontinued it. "We're in an unfortunate position of having to compete with Christmas plays," Arnold says of her company. "But it would be nice to have something for Jewish children to go see at Hanukkah."

Instead, we're inundated with plays about "the true meaning of Christmas" that never get within caroling distance of a manger. Black Theatre Troupe, which is presenting its own production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, plans to make Mama, I Want to Sing! its annual holiday production beginning next season. That musical, which the company presented last season and will revive later this month, is about the career of singer Doris Troy and has as much to do with the holidays as does an outbreak of influenza. "We chose Mama because it was a big financial success last year," according to BTT's executive director, David Hemphill. "A Christmas play has to speak to that feeling that people get at this time every year. If it's a play that takes place at Christmastime, but it's about a rapist, I don't think it would go over very well."

It's no wonder, with that sort of reasoning, that the alleged birth of the Messiah has been plundered in favor of the more fiscally prudent treacle. "Face it," Shurtz told me. "You're talking about a perception of Christmas that has nothing to do with the arts. If Christ were here, we'd have him in the lobby at intermission, cracking a whip and demanding donations.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela