Joy Joy Joy Joy to the World

Intiman's Black Nativity is a full-throttle gospel entertainment. Also: Island of Misfits and You Can't Take It With You.

Black NativityIntiman Theater, Seattle Center, 269-1900. $15–$45. Plays Tues.–Sun.; see www.intiman.org for times. Ends Dec. 27.Is it church or theater? Not even those involved seem to know for sure.Whatever it is, Black Nativity stokes a roaring gospel fire and could get even a rhythmically challenged agnostic to clap on one.The show claims to target audiences of all faiths, but it's safe to say that Christians take the day here. Numerous denominations get a name-check during the program, while those hoping for similar shout-outs for Buddha or Mohammed are going to go home disappointed. This is state-of-the-art Afro-American Christian worship writ large, and the joy joy joy joy down in your heart is going to depend largely on whether you can accept what's happening as an entertainment or as a living enactment of the New Testament.The first act is really what Langston Hughes envisioned in 1961 as Wasn't It a Mighty Day? (In fact, the original production starred Alvin Ailey.) Here, it's a fairly straightforward retelling of the Messiah's birth—with a few flourishes, like a whole "talk to the hand" pantomime when Mary and Joseph are seeking a place for her to deliver. Over the passing decades, the show's second act has mushroomed into equal parts pageant and passionate testifying. It's over the top, it's beautiful, and sometimes you feel as wrung out from watching as the performers seem to be from reaching soul-deep for every number.There are spirituals that predate the Fisk Jubilee Singers ("This Little Light of Mine"), classic songs of faith and inspiration ("How Great Thou Art"), and Christmas favorites ("Go Tell It on the Mountain") retooled into full-throttle gospel rave-ups that threaten to rattle the Sheetrock right off the walls of the Intiman stage. There's not a bad voice among the Black Nativity Choir (including members of the Total Experience Gospel Choir) under the direction of Pastor Patrinell Wright, and when the soloists take flight, they do it with the intention of bearing the whole house heavenward. Likewise the amazing crew of high-flying and emotive dancers and a band that swings so tight they leave the impression they've been playing together for years.Several seats emptied late in the second act, because Black Nativity may finally be providing too much of a good thing. Having been to Pentecostal services on more than one occasion, I've witnessed firsthand how these trancelike forays into the ecstatic become self-perpetuating. The energy and mood feed on themselves until you're either deep in the gospel groove, or begging for a bathroom or a burger. With a little editing, Black Nativity should remain on the must-see list of Seattleites for years to come. KEVIN PHINNEYIsland of MisfitsRichard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com. $10–$15. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sun. Ends Dec. 21."Santa hates Jews. He's practically a Nazi." Well, that's certainly a provocative comment, but it also begs for extrapolation and some notion of context.So it is with Island of Misfits, from the keyboard of Amy Boyce Holtcamp. The show takes its name from a vignette in the stop-motion version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which one Internet source cites as the longest-running and highest-rated TV special of all time. The Island of Misfit Toys is that macabre exile where toys that were ill-conceived or constructed must pass eternity without the company of an adoring child. Here it's a loose metaphor for people who don't fit into society and a launching pad for what's billed as "a wild yuletide road-trip through the turbulent '60s."But as the saying goes, if you can remember the '60s you weren't really there. If Holtcamp was alive in the '60s, she must have been living abroad or working through her own psychedelic experience, because there's not one scintilla of truth fleshed out in her play, which depicts a trio of laid-off co-workers who decide to help one of their own escape the draft by slipping him across the border to Canada.The trio includes Snowflake Jones (Kaitie Warren), a surly photographer whose daily letters to her boyfriend in Vietnam have been returned for months now, a black loner and puppeteer named—wink wink—Freddie Douglas (Geoffery Simmons), and their officious dweeb of a supervisor, Herbie Pickle (Patrick Allcorn).Trouble is, some characters are grounded in a different reality than others. It's impossible to know if it's Holtcamp's inexperience as a writer or director Mark Jared Zufelt's inability to create an ensemble. While the three principals are sketched out as three-dimensional, nearly everyone they encounter on their run for the border is as cartoonish as the TV special that serves as their inspiration. There are encounters with the KKK, a gay woodsman, brassy border guards, and larcenous hippies. Musical interludes include performances of "Rock Around the Clock" and "Abraham, Martin and John," and there are other references to the '60s intended to set the period. But a litany of social and political touchstones do not add up to verisimilitude. It's as though the playwright dashed through her copy of Tom Brokaw's Boom! with a highlighter while listening to a playlist of tunes by psychedelic bands.At the show's conclusion, there was a "bonus" entertainment of burlesque performers—Waxie Moon, in Village People mustache and thigh-high vinyl boots, stripping to "The Night Before Christmas" and faux-masturbating to "Little Drummer Boy," and a buxom pixie named Miss L. Toe whose panties blinked with Christmas lights. If any of these acts were presents, you would find me at the return counter tomorrow. KEVIN PHINNEYYou Can't Take It With YouSeattle Repertory Theater, Seattle Center, 443-2222, www.seattlerep.org. $10–$59. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun., 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends Jan. 3.If you're one of those people who believes that nothing rings in the yuletide quite like a play set around the Fourth of July, then consider your stocking full: Seattle Rep has dropped a mirthful production of You Can't Take It With You down the chimney.Actually, it's easy to see why the Rep worked this Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman evergreen into its winter season. There's real warmth from the kinder, gentler era it depicts, which settles on the brow like a kiss from the Ghost of Christmas Past.A comedy of manners and logic set in 1936, You Can't Take It With You tells the tale of a young office girl, Alice Sycamore, who falls for the company's new V.P.—who's also her boss's son. He loves her too, but she fears his parents will never consent to the marriage because her family takes the term "eccentric" into a new dimension entirely.Instead of playing up the homogeneity that family often denotes, director Warner Shook sharpens the characters' differences until each is a stylized caricature careening wildly off the others, resulting in something like the Osbournes suited up as the Waltons. Hart and Kaufman lob a new character into the mix every 20 minutes or so, until there's an out-of-work actress dead drunk on the day sofa, a deposed Russian duchess whipping up blintzes in the kitchen, and a pair of hired hands roaming the set who reveal much more about race relations in 1936 than we'd care to recall. Ultimately it doesn't matter whether you follow the plot or latch onto any one of the characters; neithermakes much sense, but the laughs come in such quick succession that it's hard to resist.Michael Ganio's set is a curio shop from another time. Not only is the Sycamore home crammed full of Depression-era tchotchkes, it actually looks lived in. Frances Kenny drapes her cast in a vast array of styles and color—and everything has the look of being store-bought in the '30s. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting moves daylight across the spacious living room with subtle certainty, and the sound design does with tunes what Norman Rockwell did with brushstrokes: They evoke an era not as it was, but as it ought to be remembered. KEVIN PHINNEY

 
comments powered by Disqus