Holiday Faire

A swooning Scrooge causes Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas to linger.  A widow waits for her late husband to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  A Jewish misanthrope debates Krampus.  An elderly man deals with his failing cognitive health.  A lonely man on a lonely drive listens to the recordings of a loved one.  Is this a fever dream?  No, it’s the shorts of Holiday Lites currently playing at Benson Theatre under the auspices of Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.

This show is the spiritual successor to the old Shelterskelter and From Shelterbelt With Love shows.  All the shows are originals, but BSB takes it one step farther as all of these shorts are written by local writers (MS Wulfgar, Moira Mangiameli, and Jason Levering).  The cornucopia of shorts varies in tone from sweet to funny to introspective to heartbreaking and the quality of the writing ranges from solid to excellent.

MS Wulfgar and Moira Mangiameli handle the directing duties of the vignettes and each does some fine work.  Mangiameli’s best effort comes in Y2K where she strikes a positively eerie and isolated tone with a man taking a lonely drive on 12/31/99.  The use of lights (or rather lack of) exude the sense of a dark and starless night and adds to the sadness of the tale.  Wulfgar shows directing versatility that matches his legendary acting chops as he shines with an introspective take on A Christmas Carol with The Old Haunts, some snarky comedy with God Jule, Shalom and heartrending honesty with Old Sy Lange.  Each director guides their actors well and pull convincing and satisfying performances from the performers.

Each member of the ensemble gets a moment to shine.  Adam Bassing has a nervous everyman quality as Neighbor in Bang the Bread while Erienne Wredt shows a real penchant for storytelling in the same short.  Jason Levering brings a real despondency to Mike in Y2K.  But some of the best work takes place in Old Sy Lange and The Old Haunts.

In Old Sy Lange, Jack Zerbe is spot on as the title character who is dealing with the declination of his mind due to Alzheimer’s.  His New Jersey accent is flawless and you can feel his sincere belief in his hallucinations and the anger he feels as he loses his independence bit by bit.  Moira Mangiameli is the rock as the understanding nurse supporting Sy.  Jessica Johnson is utterly believable as the daughter watching her father slowly fade away.

In The Old Haunts, Murphy Scott Wulfgar finds some surprising depth in the role of Jacob Marley.  He starts with the cliched ghost routine, but switches to a more introspective look as he realizes he wasn’t remembered or loved enough to be granted a chance at salvation.  Then he closes with the same ghost routine, but with a much more nuanced take that may speak more to the truth of Dickens’ vision.  Eric Griffith brings a real childlike quality to Ghost of Christmas Present as he technically is a baby as he only exists on Christmas in a perpetual cycle of birth and death.  Katt Walsh is wonderful as the Ghost of Christmas Past.  She has a little bit of denseness about her as she goes through her speech to an unconscious Scrooge and her inability to request a different card in a version of Go Fish.  But her best moment is when she becomes Scrooge’s sister Fan.  Walsh exhibits a level of vocal control I’ve rarely seen as she becomes the child on the turn of a dime.

The show had some nice effects with the lights emulating perpetually falling snow and the projections of a snowy park or Victorian England on the screen.  Costumes always suited the characters with my favorites being the period correct costumes of The Old Haunts and Griffith’s Krampus outfit with shaggy wig and horns in God Jule, Shalom.  A few minor flaws failed to dampen a charming night of holiday shorts.

Holiday Lites runs at Benson Theatre under the auspices of Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company through Dec 18.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sun at 7:30pm and matinee performances at 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $35 and can be reserved here.  Benson Theatre is located at 6054 Maple St in Omaha, NE.

Deck the Halls with Gales of Laughter. Fa La La La La Ha Ha Ha Ha

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

And then everything goes to hell.  This is Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Less a play than a piece of Christmas metafiction, this show features three actors, playing highly exaggerated versions of themselves, who delightfully and hilariously educate the audience on Christmas beliefs and traditions from around the world while lampooning various Christmas tales.  Susan Clement-Toberer’s masterful direction hits all the right notes as her trio of comic geniuses will have your sides splitting by the time the night is over.

Ben Beck plays the leader of the troupe.  A serious actor, he simply wants to share the story of A Christmas Carol.  He is constantly thwarted by his two cohorts who would rather run through every Christmas story know to humanity.  Beck reluctantly goes along for the ride on the condition that A Christmas Carol is performed as part of the anthology.

Beck is a bit of a hapless sad sack as he constantly gets the short end of the stick in this spectacle.  He is forced to play the Grinch, receives impossible questions during a fruitcake quiz show, and is accused of not believing in Santa Claus (which he does not).  Yet he bravely soldiers on in pursuit of performing his beloved story.  When he finally gets his opportunity, he becomes a manic force of energy as he effortlessly and blitzingly changes identities from Scrooge to George Bailey (doing a Jimmy Stewart that Stewart would envy) on the turn of a dime due to his story getting hijacked by one of the other performers.  Beck did trip over his lines on a couple of occasions, but that appeared to be due to the breakneck pace of the show.

Bill Grennan is a riot as he plays a naïve, lovable man-child.  He is truly a wide-eyed innocent who loves the Christmas specials of his childhood and still believes in Santa Claus.  Grennan’s role is arduous as he constantly zips around the stage and theatre, almost warping between various unusual spots.  He’s allowed the chance to do some brilliant character works as he portrays Gustav, the Green-Nosed Reingoat (to avoid copyright infringement), a slightly lascivious Frosty the Snowman (who sounded like Charlie in the Box from Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer), a pirate searching for the white bearded whale, Moby Nick, and a sweet, dramatic turn as Linus Van Pelt delivering the “what Christmas is all about” monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Grennan also subtly shows that his character may not be as innocent and dimwitted as he appears.  He is determined to get his own way and is the one who actually gets the ball rolling on sharing Christmas tales due to his refusal to do A Christmas Carol.  Grennan’s usurping Beck’s A Christmas Carol with It’s a Wonderful Life is quite a sly move from someone Beck claims “isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree”.

Teresa Sindelar’s comic acumen has never been sharper than with this performance.  Ms Sindelar willingly goes along with Grennan to present all of these Christmas stories, but seems to do it because she simply wants to have fun and not to avoid A Christmas Carol as she willingly assists Beck in his telling of that story in Act II.  Her chameleon-like ability to assume any character is allowed to shine as she transforms herself from a slightly psychotic Yukon Cornelius, to a parody of Barbara Walters commentating (sometimes under her breath) on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come earnestly pantomiming an important message to Beck’s Scrooge that nearly had this writer falling out of his chair.

In the end, words cannot do justice to this show.  It must be experienced.  The sureness of the direction and the devastatingly accurate comic timing of the three performers played out on a stage beautifully designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, painted by Craig Lee, and lit by Carol Wisner makes Every Christmas Ever Told. . .And Then Some a hit for the holidays.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some plays at the Blue Barn Theatre though December 21.   Tickets are going fast.  The only shows with tickets remaining are Dec 11 and 18 at 7:30pm and December 21 at 6pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.