Part II: Xmas showdown

Wherein I finish my Yuletide trek and find much good.

In my second week of checking out Seattle's impressive glut of holiday shows, I decided to toss myself entirely into the figgy-pudding-coated belly of the beast. In all honesty, I expected to be a complete mess by now, but I'm holding up pretty well, with nary a "humbug" on my lips. It's not the sort of stunt I'd suggest you try, of course; I am a trained professional, with years of experience in seeing lots of theater. Those of you who don't do this for a living are advised to stay with the recommended dosage of one or two Yuletide extravaganzas a season, three if you're feeling especially festive.

Bride of Ham for the Holidays

Theater Off Jackson, ends December 27

Lipizzanner? I Don't Even Know Her!

Annex Theater, ends December 20

The Bogey Hosen Christmas Spectacular

Unexpected Productions, ends December 20

If Ornaments Had Lips

On the Boards, ends December 20

Black Nativity

Intiman Theater, ends December 27

A Christmas Carol

A Contemporary Theater till December 27

As outlined last week, there are essentially three sorts of holiday shows, the reverent, the irreverent, and the light musical type that's a mainstay of what some theaters (like the 5th Avenue and the Village) produce all year anyway. This week, I focused my attentions on a number of the shows that take a dark, sarcastic look at the season, with a couple of traditional shows along the way to refresh my Yuletide spirit.

First stop was Bride of Ham for the Holidays, a production featuring Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt, along with Andrew Tasakos and the musical talents of Chris Jeffries. Koch and Platt have been in the holiday satire business now for several years, with two prior Ham for the Holiday shows as well as contributions to the annual Alice B. revue The Holiday Survival Gameshow. The experience pays off. It's a rare comic sensibility that can maintain some subtlety in satire, or put forward an absurd situation that contains some space for some real people to inhabit. But this is something that this duo do repeatedly during the evening, with sketches that include a monologue from a disaffected baby model, a nun temp worker who is tailor-made for a department store's complaint department, and an assemblage entirely made up of women who are always the bridesmaids, never the brides. Perhaps the funniest piece of the evening is a visit with the Sequim Gay Men's Chorale, which is the sort of affectionate but pointed parody that only comes from a deep familiarity with the subject matter.

Disappointingly, the holiday sketches are the least successful, including an underbaked number about a Christmas elf turned drag queen and "Viva Las Xmas," a badly out-of-date parody about mother/daughter country stars the Judds that's really just a few white-trash culture jokes sliced mighty thin. These folks are talented and smart enough not to have to worry about the obligatory Yuletide jokes; maybe next Christmas they can skip the holiday references altogether.

Speaking of which, there's hardly a seasonal reference to be found in Annex's semi-annual holiday cabaret Lipizzaner?! I Don't Even Know Her!. The show's format, however, is similar to a venerable Yuletide tradition, the college drama revue. In our halls of higher learning, this is an excuse for all the drama students to sing, dance, and make a lot of obscure jokes that you'll only understand if you're in the department. Not a lot has changed in the big wide world; here you'll only get all the jokes if you're a longtime fan of Annex—or even better, a company member. (This includes the obscure title of the evening, an in-joke if there ever was one.)

Surprisingly, the weakest part of the evening is the comedy, a series of fairly lame sketches of the not-ready-forAlmost Live variety (with the exception of Scott Auguston's charmingly sinister shadow-puppet shows, which run throughout the evening). On the other hand, there's banjo music, a Victorian caution on the evils of liquor recited (with appropriate poses) by Kathie Horejsi, some thoughtful smut from Keri Healey, and a fabulous radio-controlled monster truck rally, which is certainly the most thrilling display of vehicular daring that I've ever seen in a fringe theater.

Such skit/music/performance revues have also been a longtime staple of holiday TV, a history celebrated by Unexpected Productions' show The Bogey Hosen Family Christmas Spectacular!. Written by Brian Lohmann (who also composed the original music), it follows 40 years in the career of an archetypal TV comedian (played by Michael White) from 1958 right up to the present. The aim of the show, to provide a mild parody of those interminable show-biz family Christmas specials from ages past, is modest, but the script and songs are clever and suit the no-frills style of the theater well.

In some ways, however, the parody is a little too realistic to be funny. Watching our host change over the years from a debonair (if cloying) cigarette-smoking funny guy into a semi-comatose wreck carting an oxygen tank around is downright creepy. And despite the noble efforts of actor Jack Lippard as Bogey's son Howie, there's just not a lot of laughs to be mined from a Vietnam vet with shell shock. Give the company points for edginess; it's also hard not to be charmed by a show that includes a parody of Laugh-In, several tap-dance routines, a disco number, and some anti-corporate satire, all in less than an hour and a half.

When it comes to skewering the holiday good and proper, however, I have to give this week's award to If Ornaments Had Lips, presented at On the Boards. While this is billed as a "one-woman" show featuring the esteemed writer/performer Lauren Weedman, musician James Palmer is a full-fledged partner in crime, from his initial entrance as a seedy-looking Christmas elf to the invaluable contribution of such songs as "Chrissy the Talking Reindeer" and the title number. He also plays, with a few minimal mumbles into his mike, all the characters required as background for Weedman's dark story of a relationship between two self-obsessed people around the holiday time.

Debraa (her name's spelling is just part of her bounteous creativity) loves Christmas, because it gives her a bunch of new ways to focus on the wonders that are her. These include her track-skipping medley of Christmas carols, her eccentric storytime sessions with her preschool class, and her collection of Christmas tree ornaments. This year, she's got a new boyfriend to share all of this with, a slacker artist who composes long poems where he compares her to a piece of food stuck on a lightbulb. In so many ways they're a perfect couple, but troubles arise, and it just doesn't look like a happy holidays is on the cards.

Weedman has the rare ability to show us those aspects of life that don't often get an airing on stage, like adults having screaming arguments in public, or how shared sexual fantasies can have unexpected consequences. (The image of her providing an "X-ray" perspective on what a French kiss looks like will, I'm afraid, haunt me for sometime.) Deftly directed by Shawn Belyea, this is the best solo work that Weedman has thus far developed, and is just too good to be exclusively seasonal fare.

To cure myself of the growing suspicion that Christmas is exclusively a time for neuroses and sarcasm, I headed over to the Intiman for Black Nativity. Langston Hughes' gospel song play retells the story of Christmas with poetry and gospel music. Directed by Jacqueline Moscou, and featuring Pat Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir, the piece also features actress Cynthia Jones as well as the pastor emeritus of Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Samuel McKinney, as narrators.

OK, this isn't really theater, unless you're willing to stretch your definition a bit. The first half, which has the most Hughes in it, is a simple Nativity play with some significant bells and whistles included, such as the joyful choreography of Thomas Grant (particularly jubilant is the dance Joseph and Mary give after Christ is born) and some great gospel music. The second half is a non-denominational church service presided over by the sonorously voiced Rev. McKinney, featuring a mix of familiar and less-familiar hymns. Even for those not of a church-going bent, this is an electric evening of song and emotion that's a sincere and authentic declaration of the joy of the season. There are clearly some signs that director Moscou and the folks at Intiman are hoping this show will become a Christmas tradition, and it certainly deserves to be.

Speaking of traditions, ACT's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written by Gregory Falls, celebrates its 23rd annual production this year. It's the fourth time I've seen it, and I have to admit it wasn't something that I was particularly looking forward to, despite my belief in the platonic perfection of Dickens' original. But artistic director Gordon Edelstein agreed to take a crack at the piece as a rite of passage, and the results are invigorating.

This year, Kurt Beattie and SeᮠG. Griffin alternate as Scrooge. I've seen Griffin in the role before, and enjoyed his somewhat melancholic portrayal of the old skinflint, but I'll admit to enjoying Beattie in the role even more. He's so deeply unpleasant at the play's beginning, snarling at street urchins, shoving poor Bob Cratchit around the office, and shouting his nephew Fred down, that it would need some pretty formidable ghosts to whup him into shape. That's exactly what he receives, thanks to a cast that includes such Seattle veterans as Jeff Steitzer as Marley and such talented newcomers as David Drummond as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Edelstein clearly understands that this is a ghost story, and the result is one of the spookiest productions of the piece I've ever seen, with lots of dark lighting, creepy moans and wails, and a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that arrives with its own permanent cloud of mist.

After he's been scared straight, Beattie's Scrooge is literally shaking for several scenes, in a marvelous mixture of shock and ecstatic joy. The fact that I was also moved after a week of so much Christmas fare might say something about my professional resiliency, but I think it also says something very good indeed about the quality and diversity of the Seattle theater scene. What a pleasant way to see the year out, and what unexpected hopes it raises for what 1999 might bring.

 
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