Ham for the Holidays IV: Glazing Saddles

Theater Off Jackson ends December 24

Watching Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt's latest holiday revue feels like being

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Season's stagings

A holiday roundup of local theater offerings.

Ham for the Holidays IV: Glazing Saddles

Theater Off Jackson ends December 24

Watching Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt's latest holiday revue feels like being entertained by old friends in their living room. And why shouldn't it? These talented women have been local favorites during their 10-year partnership, from their comedic stylings as Dos Fallopia to their reliably funny contributions to Alice B.'s The Holiday Survival Game Show. Even after a two-year hiatus in their collaboration, the opening-night crowd at the intimate and comfy Theater Off Jackson knew just what to expect. Koch and Platt seldom fail us, as they don Hasidic gear to entertain an office Christmas party or team Sister Mary Agnes Labia with the earthy Craft Lady to cohost a cable sex-talk show. Koch's face is platter-eyed and sharp-angled. In musical solo or as Kathie Lee Gifford at the Hard Knock Caf頯f has-beens, she has the warmth of a colorful favorite aunt. Platt's mug is all dough, which she twists about her sapphire glance. As a green-wigged poetry slammer or gone-to-seed superhero, she wields a dagger wit that adds to the implicit threat of her girth. The show dusts off some sketches from the last Ham revue, most notably the Sequim Gay Men's Chorus, an affectionate blast updated in part by Andrew Tasakos' energetic tribute to Britney Spears. Less worthy of revival is their white-trash parody of the Judds, which grows stale quickly. That their improvisations with the audience fall flat doesn't diminish Platt and Koch's relationship with us. Their familiar faces are a welcome sight each year.

GIANNI TRUZZI

Sanders Family Christmas

Taproot Theater Company ends December 23

While some holiday festivities skirt the Christ in Christmas, the Christian-based Taproot Theater Company embraces the Savior in its revival of Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's Sanders Family Christmas. Such heady ideas as faith and compassion are whipped into a country-music medley that's chock-full of Biblical homilies and bluegrass harmonies. These tunes impress the most, weaving their way through everything from traditional carols to hillbilly cheer. When the five musical family members aren't singing and playing and sometimes when they are, the wide eyes and comic timing of the sixth nonmusical member (Catherine Gaffney) steals the stage, especially in her budding relationship with equally aw-shucks Reverend Oglethorpe (Matthew Blackwell Kinney). Ray and Bailey set the action on Christmas Eve 1941, three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Dennis Sanders (Samuel Vance) has joined the Marines, raring to destroy Hitler. Yet in this evening of entertainment, rather than deep reflection on the nature of Christ and man, neither Dennis nor anyone else makes any attempt to reconcile this fiery patriotism with the "turn the other cheek, love thy enemy" philosophy. Even a tearful goodbye between Dennis and his mother (Theresa Holmes) is quickly forgotten in the face of a knee-slapping song. Why build in the tension of America on the brink of war and never delve into its relationship to the Christian ideals of kindness and forgiveness that the rest of the musical sweetly and movingly explores?

MOLLY RHODES

The Dina Martina Christmas Show

On the Boards ends December 17

Dina Martina, the beautifully grotesque and decidedly surreal Vegas showgirl created and performed by Grady West, may be an acquired taste, but she's awfully hard to resist once you've given in to her. Alternately delighted and perplexed by the particulars of her own show, Dina spends the evening crooning devastatingly off-key melodies and proffering equally skewed non sequiturs and malapropisms, randomly crowing "high octane!" in reference to her supposed level of pizzazz. It's obvious that West and director Kevin Kent crack each other up, and happily, that circumstance translates to the generously giddy spirit of this year's holiday offering. The act still seems a bit outsized by the stage at On the Boards (it can't quite fill in all that space), and the production is overall a bit on the skimpy side. At this point, however, it's time for any grumbling aesthetes to cry uncle—only the most inflexible of critics could resist a tentative jazz scat to "Carol of the Bells." West's singular imagination is wondrously limber, and encouraged by Kent, it bounces playfully off the walls and keeps coming at you in hysterically sneaky ways. How can one possibly dodge a tribute to the Sands Hotel that without comment turns into a salute to Sandy Duncan? The show is a chance to watch West's unique talent unfurl, and the further it rolls off into the corners of his creation's sublime dementia, the merrier our rewards will be.

STEVE WIECKING

Black Nativity: A Gospel song

Langston Hughes Cultural Center ends December 24

Langston Hughes wrote Black Nativity to embrace what was known of the Nativity's East African origins. The energetic and inspiring performers are more comfortable returning to a homily, rather than drama, to express Hughes' words: Paralleling African performance with that of modern song, dance, and speech, the first half of the evening consists of the traditional lyrical elegance of Black Nativity, albeit a little jerky and homespun. While after intermission, the evening takes a sharp turn for the garden of Gethsemane. The Rev. Dr. McKinney assumes the podium and sermonizes about Hughes and what messages of his still resonate today. Punctuating his pulpit, the Patrinell Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir sing a number of pieces, including "Joyful, Joyful," "Couldn't Keep It to Myself," and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Through it all, I saw children bouncing in their seats; a woman, with hair piled higher than the tower of Babylon, getting funky; and two white Episcopalian biddies feeling the Holy Ghost for the first time. So technically, it isn't a play or a choral work. But it is Jesus' birthday, and at least someone's throwing him a party.

ROBYN BELL

Beyond Kindness: The holiday edition

On the Boards ends December 17

One-man shows set off a racket in my head—the pox of repertory theater, a meager, predramatic form the Greeks left long ago, etc.—to the point that I need a drink. An evening with Matt Smith is an uneasy pastiche of recitation (from his self-help text Beyond Kindness), family vignettes, cheap stunts, and improvisation. Slipping in late from the bar, I was stunned by Matt Smith's preternatural resemblance to David Duke—boyish features and that creepy, inscrutable smile. (Now, a facetious parenting seminar by the former Klan grand dragon and Louisiana politician would be a true "Machiavellian" family forum.) But the overeager guffaws were making me grouchy; as my head (and mood) cleared, however, Smith turned bashful, trapped behind a podium, his dense reading presentation not cruel and stupid enough to be really funny—just a smarmy, Craig Kilborn-style schtick. I wanted to address the need for a foil in one-man shows, when, lo and behold, out was trotted the suggestion of Smith's children for Q&A. Here, Smith hit his stride as an actor and an improvisor, digging up some delicious family fault lines, even getting an old lady to laugh after calling her a "shitty whore." Back in the bar, I was almost ecstatic to find out it was just a quarter past 9. I raised an ale to the beauty of brevity and vowed I'd laugh harder next time.

KURT ZUMDIECK

XMas at the Johnsons' (An Evening of Real Art)

A Theater Under the Influence ends December 17

While most companies are currently going through the motions to create sugarplum-sweet extravaganzas, A Theater Under the Influence's latest production is a genuinely bright star to guide theatergoers through the holiday darkness. Adapted from Aleksander Vvedenskii's absurdist play Christmas at the Ivanovs', Xmas at the Johnsons' has little to do with Christmas and makes no apologies for essentially being veritably plot-free. (In a nutshell: When one of the children of the affluent Johnson family is murdered, they must try to enjoy the holiday without her.) "The plot of a theatrical performance should be theatrical," explains the emcee at the play's beginning. And the show is all about presentation: The actors use a variety of theatrical styles to portray characters from different time periods; the set is sparse and open, allowing the audience to see actors prepare for the next scene; puppets stand in for major roles. Rather than leaving the audience with the bad taste of artsy pretension, this didactic awareness gives the show incredible dynamic strength. To create a sense of an evening of the 1930s Russian literary circle OBERIU (Association of Real Art), small vignettes adapted from work of Dani'il Kharms are peppered throughout the show. Some are patience-testing pieces of repetitive poetry, but most are intriguing studies of character and language. Above all, directors Miriam Goodman-Miller and Craig Bradshaw have done a brilliant job creating a single organic creature from eight equally talented actors.

GREGORY ZURA

A very special money & run Winter season holiday special

Theater Schmeater ends December 16

It's not very often that energetic onstage action keeps pace with smart dialogue, but when Theater Schmeater brings A Very Special Money & Run Winter Season Holiday Special in from the cold, you get both your heady funnies and your farce. It's Christmas Eve, and outlaws Money (Lisa Neal) and Run (Joshua Sliwa) have taken a hotel's last vacancy. A cussing mad Josephine (Laurie Jerger), the "technical virgin" who's pushing the third trimester through the front of her dolphin muumuu, is forced to stay in the hotel's garage with her boyfriend Meryl (Wayne S. Rawley). At this point, the tied denim T-shirt can barely contain Money's generous heart, and she begs Run to help the parents of the potential second coming find a place to sleep. Playwright Wayne S. Rawley has fine-tuned the art of episodic comedy by creating bold, gutsy characters that are three parts cardboard and one part sincerity. Soon three wise guys show up, sent from the Vatican Mafia; when you add in an ex-con, a mad scientist, and mechanized nurse practitioners, you can see where this is going. It's like a mix of Tom and Jerry and Reservoir Dogs, served neat, with a Baby Jesus on the side.

ROBYN BELL

A Christmas Carol

A Contemporary Theater ends December 24

In a city packed with every imaginable variation on the holiday theme, A Contemporary Theater sticks with its 25th production of the father of them all, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. True to the tradition of presenting the ultimate traditional play, neither the text nor the production veer widely from the story we've all seen or heard fistfuls of times before. It wouldn't have been a surprise had the audience decided to chant along with key lines, perhaps a rousing "Humbug!" after every "Bah!" especially those families who saw the same play minus a different theater and a few cast members who hadn't been born in any of the prior 24 productions. Even with the knowledge that this is a warmed-over cash cow, ACT's cast still provides moments of comfort and cheer in a production that zips along at a perfect 90-minute length. Set designer Shelley Henze Schermer uses a wide variety of lowered pulleys and rising platforms to keep the sets and the action simple yet engaging. David Pichette embodies a suitably curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he alternates with John Pocaccino. It is Pichette's transformation through this role as he moves toward finally bursting forth with the enthusiastic realization that he can actually receive joy from fellow man that is most enchanting. Through the twirling action, you catch glimpses of Pichette's discovering what his life could have been like, what he gave up in the now too-familiar, never-ending pursuit of money for the sake of money.

MOLLY RHODES

 
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