Space 55's A Bloody Mary Christmas Features Killer Perfomances

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BIG OL' HOLIDAY THEATER UPDATE: Because of you people and how much you love to go to good plays, White Christmas has added two performances, one this Sunday evening, December 15, and one on Christmas freakin' Eve!

Back to our regularly scheduled weirdness:

The setup: Can it be only three years ago that Space 55 premièred its original play about three fun-loving elderly Sun Citians at Christmastime, an event so wildly popular that it attracts audience members who think people standing around smoking outside a black-box theater means some shit is going down to the extent that they're afraid to get out of the car? Can it be that this show is the reason I couldn't figure out why other theater critics kept saying that Fifty Shades of Felt was the filthiest (not that there's anything wrong with that) thing they'd ever seen on a Valley stage?

Yes, Virginia.

The execution: Like herpes, A Bloody Mary Christmas is back, and like any tradition to which one owns the intellectual property rights, it's gently evolved over time in the hands of playwright Denny Guge, ably assisted by the three stars of the debut, Jacque Arend, Shawna Franks, and Stacey Reed-Hanlon, who originally developed the characters of Bertha, Blanche, and Mabel for a sketch in Space 55's annual 7 Minutes Under the Mistletoe mayhem. (Disclosure: I will be performing in December 21's 7 Minutes Under the Mistletoe. Space 55 does not select or vet artists or material for its 7 Minutes . . . series.)

There's at least one additional song that wasn't in the first version of the script. I'm pretty sure it's the one whose refrain is "Empty bottles," but I don't entirely remember the spiffy opening number, either. The original compositions, by Dangerville and Samson Says, are trancy in a not-entirely-musical-genre way -- a little hypnotic, but mostly quirky and non-catchy, in an apparently purposeful manner.

Though the tunes can work for non-singers, this year's brand-new cast of actors who did not create the characters (and former New Times contributor Leslie Barton, who is a friend of mine) are warbling fools who really nail the melodies. The numbers are not a huge part of the action -- the dialogue includes jokes about how odd it is to spontaneously burst into an unknown song together -- but they are fun.

Now that the plot, about an HOA rep who threatens the trio with homelessness while at least two of them try to get into his sexy, sexy tracksuit pants, is entirely fleshed out, so to speak, and the play is just about an hour and a half long without an intermission, a few of the short scenes and sequences feel like overdone shtick. Mostly, though, it moves right along.

The leading ladies create a truly moving relationship among the three lifelong friends, whose frankness (only partially alcohol-fueled) about the eventful past and the diminished present is the source of not just the kernel of truth that ignites good comedy, but also the explicit language that makes the show entirely unsuitable for children and sweetly shocking even for some grownups. They talk about lust, sex, promiscuity, and one another's hoo-has a lot, is what I'm trying to say.

Barton, in particular, presents a vulnerability that's partly written into her character, Mabel (who forgets a lot of things and, having never married or reproduced, worries that without her friends, her life would be entirely empty), but also comes from a brave, centered performance. It's satisfying to see Mabel rewarded by the unfolding of events. (Though everybody eventually is, in a virtuous, vaguely "The Gift of the Magi" fashion, because it's Christmas, damn it!)

Elizabeth Athetis (The Unhappiness Plays), a hardworking, professionally trained delight of an actor, impressed me with her utter ownership of Bertha. I actually forgot, by the time the show was over, that I was not watching Arend's distinctive performance from the previous three productions of Bloody, despite the fact that Athetis' maniacal facial expressions and precision timing are entirely her own.

Toni Jourdan has a less flashy character to play, but she imbues Blanche with a strength and optimism that are a match for her buddies' excesses. And BJ Garrett, who was so spot-on in Uncle Vanya, really rocks the authoritative-old-man vibe as Mr. Vanderhoff.

The set, a sweet little living/dining/drinking area in the ladies' condo, is a lovely holiday crapfest with which the performers interact as though they'd been born there. Colleen Lacy's costumes are even worse, i.e., better.

The verdict: Nobody in this cast is actually in their 80s or 90s, and Space 55 is too small to fake it, but the sincerity and respect that the ensemble, directed by Kevin Flanagan, brings to a silly, disgusting piece of frippery makes A Bloody Mary Christmas something you have to see.

A Bloody Mary Christmas continues through Saturday, December 21, at 636 East Pierce Street. Tickets, which are selling fast so you really should get them in advance, are $15 here or at the door. Call 602-663-4032 for more info.

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