Three and a Half Kick-Ass Christmas Plays in the Valley

We know you're crazy busy this time of year, and so are local theater companies. With very few revivals of Curtains-approved holiday extravaganzas on the boards in 2011, we ran around and checked out as many of the current crop of offerings as we could.

Here are three plays and a special event, continuing into this weekend, that you should try to catch if you want your halls decked and your bells jingled.

3.5. Yuletide: A musical celebration from Arizona Curriculum Theater and Bartholomew Faire
If someone awesome is visiting you from out of town (which, in my case, does not happen until next week), Yuletide is the holiday show I would suggest. Not because there isn't an elegant, unamplified, unadorned music- and storytime in other cities, but because it's likely to be as under-the-radar where your guest comes from as it is here. 

Arizona Curriculum Theater features some of the very best oral interpreters of literature anywhere -- they effortlessly cross the line between raconteur and actor -- and in this show, they present personal histories of everything from an excessive Roman-empire feast to a cruel medieval Welsh winter, along with beloved verse from Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Edgar Guest, stories of the "anti-saints" Krampus and La Befana (motto: frightening European kids into good behavior for centuries), and a few other fun stories of assorted provenance.

There's material for every taste, including mystery, humor, and things that appeal to children of all ages. All three performers are awesome, but Jim Coates in particular is the kind of guy who could recite an ice-cube recipe and you'd hang on every word.

That would be a sufficient draw, but in between the stories and poems, local early-music group Bartholomew Faire plays and sings super-old carols and dances about the Annunciation and Nativity, mostly, as well as traditions both festive and funky. The tunes date from the pre-Puritan days, when early Christians incorporated the touchstones of the new faith into existing winter festivals of each region's cultures and religions. Which means they really knew how to shake it.

The musicians are wicked talented, and their mastery of rare instruments, like the hurdy gurdy-style symphonia, Gothic bagpipes, gemshorn, and a grip of North African and Middle Eastern drums and stringed instruments, lends their performance a variety of beautiful and uncommon sounds ranging from Celtic to Andalusian. Danielle Franklin's killer harp work and Heather Rene Pearson's delicate soprano round it out.

Midway through the performance, strings of lights come on like evening stars in the ceiling above Soul Invictus' wee stage. Wear your warm clothes, travel back to a simpler time, and snuggle in for a hot drink when you get home.

Yuletide continues through Friday, December 23, at 1022 Grand Avenue. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students, and free for children 12 and under accompanied by an adult). Visit or call 1-888-343-4228.

2.5 and 2. A Christmas Carol -- Hale Centre Theatre, Actors Theatre, or both
Hale Centre Theatre does a really fun, family-style version of Charles Dickens' funny, witty, moving story through Friday, December 23. (Just sitting and reading it, or taking turns reading it aloud, is the best way to realize how damn good it is.) But alumni of the long-running and recently hiatused Carol developed by Actors Theatre (a company that, as you may recall, needs money really badly) have reunited to donate their time and talent to a super-special, one-time-only read- and sing-through of that show (i.e., no staging) in front of the Herberger curtain at 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve (Saturday, December 24).

If you can spring for a ticket ($25 to $75) to this fundraiser at 222 East Monroe, call 602-253-6701 or click here to order; it should be a memorable and emotional experience. If not, or if you want to enjoy both sides of the coin, go out to downtown Gilbert, have a great meal, and then catch the Hale show at 50 West Page Avenue. (Although the remaining two performances ($30 admission) are sold out, you can check with the box office, 480-497-1181, as curtain time approaches, in case something frees up.)

1. Childsplay's Lyle the Crocodile

The great-nephews, especially the 4-year-old, gave this, possibly their first play with mostly live actors rather than puppets, their seal of approval, sitting rapt through two full acts. And I could not have loved it more. Holy crap, it is so good.

Kevin Kling added a musical score to a script based on the books by Bernard Waber, and Kish Finnegan (Arizona Theatre Company's Hair) has designed a trunkful of colorful, quick-changey, Mad-Men-on-steroids costumes for the nine-member ensemble, who cover the stage to look and sound like a cast four times that size.

It's a beautiful, gaspingly funny, nostalgic holiday love letter to Manhattan and childhood, complete with a Rockefeller Center ice-skating scene, double-Dutch rope-jumping by a crocodile (which prompted spontaneous applause throughout the house), and plenty of good-natured Eastern Seaboard yelling. You won't want it to end.

Lyle the Crocodile continues through Saturday, December 24, at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado. Order tickets, $15 to $25, here or call 480-350-2822.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson