ADMIT IT: YOU ONLY go to theater in December. It's the one time of year you're not asked to plunk down hard-earned cash for confrontational one-man memories or naked breast reflections. We won't judge you harshly. In fact, we've decided to help by checking out everything there is to see that even suggests mistletoe.
OK, we didn't see everything. These long-running Christmas cash cows don't vary much in performance from year to year:
A Christmas Carol (ACT Theatre, 700 Union, 206-292-7676, $21-$36), the sturdiest yuletide event, generally avoids drippiness, has veteran character actor David Pichette (who rotates with SeᮠG. Griffin) giving a real performance as Scrooge, and gets you in and out of there quicker (and more misty-eyed) than you'd expect (about an hour and a half).
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker (Paramount Theater, 911 Pine St., 206-292-ARTS, $17.50-$101.50) features Kent Stowell's choreography and surpassing sets and costumes by beloved children's illustrator Maurice Sendak.
Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant (Stage One Theatre, North Seattle Community College, 9600 College Way N., 206-325-6500, $19), Book-It's adaptation of a portion of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, is too cute for its source novel, but thrives under its attentive staging and the bull's-eye performance of Stephen Hando in the lead.
Black Nativity (Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center, 206-269-1900, $10-$42) tells Langston Hughes' version of the first Christmas story with usually awful acting that somehow doesn't tarnish the roof-raising vocal wonders of the Total Experience Gospel Choir.
Here, by category, are the rest of the bunch for you to consider, many of which make for great new traditions:
Appalachian Christmas Homecoming
Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 206-781-9707. $18-$26.
The title is a warning: The word "homecoming" indicates that we'll see a tearful family reunion, perhaps with a smidgen of redemption; the word "Appalachian" indicates that we'll see a lot of nice folks with banjos—and, oh, do we ever. Fortunately, Taproot's slick production manages to avoid too many syrupy moments, and the Old Tyme music is beautifully and authentically performed. Near the end, the whole thing reveals itself to be a tiresome sermon about God and Family, but, hey, it's a Christmas show—we expect these things to be ham-handed. CHRIS JENSEN
Voices of Christmas
ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 206-938-0339. $10-$26.
If you're familiar with Voices of Christmas, the 20-year-old holiday warhorse originally performed by the Group Theatre, then you know what to expect: Several hours of Christmas carols, Christmas trivia, and Christmas memories, all performed by eight lucky folks in colorful sweaters. ArtsWest procured the rights to Voices, ensuring that the show will delight and entertain successive generations forever and ever and ever. Of course, some people will think it's the cutest, coziest, most wonderful thing in the world. Others will go home and purge. You know who you are. C.J.
FOR THE TINY TIMS
Babar and Father Christmas
Northwest Puppet Center, 9123 15th Ave. N.E., 206-523-2579. $7.50-$9.50.
If you can't get to Paris for Christmas, the Carters' revival of their repertoire favorite might be the next best thing. Sure, it's a puppet show, but the faithful reproductions of Jean de Brunhoff's sketches as stage sets, the Django Reinhardt interludes, and the tres fran硩s properness of the nattily dressed pachyderms will make you long for a stroll by the Seine with some of the Nice Old Lady's butter cookies. Including choice gags and some raucous dwarves of the Carters' wicked invention, the elder de Brunhoff's last Babar story before his death in 1937 receives more life than it ever had on the page. GIANNI TRUZZI
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Bathhouse Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., 206-325-6500. $10-$18.
This reprise of Barbara Robinson's 1972 story, in which the town bullies elbow their way into the church nativity pageant, charmingly captures the petty posturing among vanpool parents and, in the holiday spirit, tickles it lightly under the chin. It's to director Shana Bestock's credit that she pulls truthful performances out of this cast of kids as young as 6 (some better than the adults, in fact) and creates an experience that is meaningful and sweet for the whole family. G.T.
ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 206-292-7676. $24.50-$29.50.
Scott (Das Barbec) Warrender writes the songs that make the whole world laugh, and when his newest revue sticks to the (mostly non-Christmas) music, it doesn't disappoint. The titular imagined chorus is composed of passive-aggressive vocalists who can't quit because they've been doomed by a promise to their deceased clown founder, resulting in numbers like the deceptively loving serenade to their elderly piano teacher—the lyrics of which include her address and the fact that she has no home security system. The singing is better than the acting, and this is really just a puffed-up cabaret revue in a theater setting, but it's bright, inoffensive entertainment.
Liberty Deli, 2722 Alki Ave. S.W., 206-935-8420. $29 includes dinner.
What a relief—a Christmas show that doesn't feel like church. Craig Lucas' madcap comedy about a high-strung, self-destructive housewife (Susanna Wilson) loses steam in the second act as always, but this production is so nimbly performed that you might not even notice. The highlight is Wilson herself, who anchors the show with her pitch-perfect shrillness. As a venue, the Liberty Deli is so intimate it's conspiratorial, and the cast takes full advantage; everyone seems to be in on the fantastic spirit, and the sense of discovery is real. It's perfect for those of us who prefer our Christmas plays without the "O Holy Night" finale. C.J.
Sugar Plum Fairy
Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 206-443-2222. $10-$46.
Likable author and NPR commentator Sandra Tsing Loh is great on the page or over the air, but, alas, she's still not quite made for the stage. She's more of a personality than a performer, and no amount of slick design (this new show has been breathlessly staged and produced to the point of distraction) can cover the fact that she hasn't really written a play here. It'll probably make you laugh, though: This typically well-observed reminiscence of her childhood desire to snag a lead in The Nutcracker (with its "cruel Darwinian order") deftly captures the hyperbolic melodramatics with which many of us attempted to stake our personal claims on the world.
The Dina Martina Christmas Show
On the Boards, 100 West Roy St., 206-217-9888. $18.
Grady West's bulging, bizarre drag alter ego still comes off a tad thin in the expanse of the On the Boards mainstage; she always works best in the dripping-in-your-face intimacy of Re-bar. It won't matter much once a game crowd gives the show some heft. West's random, wicked dissection of our deliciously grotesque Culture of Celebrity is as dumbly brilliant as ever, especially for anyone ready to catch his fast passes: At one point, his demented diva tells the people, "I feel your pain, or, as the French say, I feel your bread." Look out for the evening's climax, a fowl number involving holiday stuffing that is easily the biggest single laugh of 2002.
Ham for the Holidays 5: Cinco de Porko
Theatre Off-Jackson, 409 Seventh S., 206-325-6500. $18-$20.
The latest, un-Christmasy GLBT sketch show from Dos Fallopians Peggy Platt and Lisa Koch has its laughs. Koch's parody lyrics to pop favorites have charm, and a bit in which she's a sequined nurse chanteuse hosting a Women's Health Clinic, Juice Bar, & Cabaret is absurdly funny. Still, the placid outrageousness seems a little too specifically crafted for the contented, besweatered crowd of gays and PFLAG-y comrades that fills the house. Fine, of course, if you're looking for comic safety in numbers, but feel-good irreverence only goes so far.