Come All Ye Unfaithful
In these nights before Christmas, all through New York theater houses, plenty of creatures were stirring—likely a few mice, too. Downtown, uptown, from Brooklyn to the Bronx, stages offered up a cornucopia of entertainments intended to counter traditional yuletide programming. Revelers weary of Christmas Carols or bored rigid by the Rockettes could talk back to The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, drum up enthusiasm for a nativity play featuring the cast of Drumstruck, drag themselves to a mistletoe-tinged performance by Hedda Lettuce, or gorge on Bread and Puppet's seasonal show. Or they might enjoy a musical offering such as An Ozark Mountain Christmas, A Tuna Christmas, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, and Nutcracker: Rated R.
The Flea Theater's 'Twas the Night Before rates high among the offerings. Artistic director Jim Simpson commissioned five estimable playwrights to create short works based on Clement Moore's adored doggerel "The Night Before Christmas." Though Moore's poem rings forth with benevolence, it hasn't inspired the invited playwrights to conjure visions of sugarplums. Rather, the plays teem with zombies, junkies, crucifixions, mean girls, and a particularly rabid band of chiroptera. Four directors helm these bloody-minded scenes, performed by 40 young actors drawn from the Flea's company of performers, the Bats.
The company's name clearly stirred Christopher Durang, who penned the evening's first play, "Not a Creature Was Stirring." This gently absurdist piece concerns a father reading a Christmas poem, freakishly redolent of Moore's, with very gory consequences. Every time Daddy utters the word "bat"—a term sprinkled freely throughout the poem—a horde of them descend and attack the family. For anyone familiar with Durang's writing, the piece will offer considerable laughs if few surprises.
Indeed, that description lends itself to any of the evening's works. Each is enjoyable, none a notable experiment or departure. Roger Rosenblatt offers a jokey nativity, Len Jenkin wraps himself in seedy sweetness and compassion, Mac Wellman turns in a giddily inscrutable riff on the notion of "before," entitled "Before the Before and Before That," which includes lines such as "And before the And before the And before the And before the . . . just have forgotten er oh hell I forget." Not to be forgotten is composer Elizabeth Swados's musical piece, which she also directs, paying tribute to the holiday movies that glut our nation's theaters. A chorus watches and mimes the munching of popcorn as its members sing of "a bloody screaming face" and "Ubeki the Tuvan terrorist." In the chorus, they encourage everyone to "clap your bloody hands." Not a problem.
More problematic, if outlandishly well-intentioned and far less savage, is Groovelily's Striking 12, a holiday rock musical. This three-piece (violin, keyboard, drums) funk-pop band announce to the audience that they decided to write the show in the hopes that they could give up touring for a while and perform in one place. As their Christmas lights have decked the Daryl Roth theater for over a month, they've clearly succeeded.
The show itself proves less of a success. The three band members are immensely talented musicians, committed to their performance, but the material on offer—an update of Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Little Match Girl"—doesn't spark much interest. It's sad to see performers work so hard to so little effect, sadder still that lyrics such as "snowflakes fall like velvet/I feel my spirits rise" are intended sincerely. Perhaps some fault lies with the source material, surely one of the most cloying and depressing of holiday tales. When one character describes it as "a beautiful story," band leader Brendan Milburn cogently responds, "Are you high?"
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