In 2001, when I was still relatively new to this city, I made one of my first visits to the Seattle Rep to see their presentation of the holiday-themed play Inspecting Carol, a nice comedy about a struggling regional theater company in a mid-sized city. In the play, when things start going awry for the troupe's production of annual cash cow A Christmas Carol, one character frets about the company losing a golden opportunity to make some cash and pay some bills. It rang true then (I'd worked for a similarly addled non-profit for several years), and it rings truer now. People do a lot of spending around the holidays, and not just on gifts — there's a quest for recaptured magic going on. Think about it: have you ever seen a Pacific Northwest Ballet TV spot for anything other than The Nutcracker?
I accepted the sad fact long ago that I'm never again going to feel quite like I did as a kid on Christmas morning. In general, the holidays depress the shit out of me, with the annual triple-whammy melancholia of Christmas, my birthday, and the New Year each slapping me upside the head within days of each other. Even so, I go through the motions of giving and receiving gifts, typically opting to be the person who has even the wrapping squared away before Thanksgiving (because believe me when I tell you it's better for everyone that I avoid the rabid crowds) — but not this year.
No, I've been too busy seeing a few of the holiday season's many theatrical offerings around town and writing this little recap for you. OK, that's not the only reason, of course, that I'm Charlie Brownier this year than ever. With the state of our country, the state of our leaders, the state of our state, I'm just not feelin' a lot of good cheer right now. Are you?
Well, I know of a few things that might help, and I'm sure the struggling theater companies and performers in your mid-sized city will appreciate the patronage. Regardless of your particular kind of holiday fun, you should be able to find something here to enjoy.
Take Carlotta Sue Philpott, for example. She's still the best holiday hostess in town, and her unique brand of wacky Southern-fried holiday hysteria is more disturbingly hilarious than ever. The latest Holiday Wing Ding has a new opening number — a medley of TV theme songs with extra-special lyrics — that had me in tears even before the action got underway. At the Thanksgiving weekend performance I attended, Slaw and Nellie and Salvador and Terry could be observed acting out a newly reimagined "PC" version of the Pilgrims-and-Indians story… complete with a red dot on Slaw's forehead. Members of the band Awesome (joined by Slaw, aka David Nixon) were on hand, as were storyteller Bret Fetzer and an Eastern European woman with "Sucrets Syndrome" (who kept throwing random curses — and food — at poor Slaw without warning).
As per usual, the excellent cast (Troy Mink, Nixon, Órla McGovern, Eric Mayer and Tom Ledcke) were freaky and fantastic. Also as per usual, Carlotta and her motley lot are not to be missed. But act fast — the final two performances of the short Wing Ding season happen this weekend.
Warped and wonderful in an altogether different way is Dina Martina, and an opening-weekend performance of her annual Re-bar holiday show had me alternately laughing and cringing. Much like family holiday celebrations, I'd say… if my family holiday celebrations had included a scary woman (with an oversized vulva and a rip in the visible crotch of her pantyhose) who insists on the use of soft 'g' sounds, painfully kitschy stage decorations, and brown pipe-cleaner ribbons worn over the heart in support of "rump cancer". (There was a "honey bucket" in the bar area for audience donations.)
See what I mean about that laugh/cringe combo? The Dina Martina Christmas Show is not always easy to watch, but the title diva's creator / alter-ego Grady West works a truly fucked-up kind of sorcery here. It's very camp, extremely gaudy, and as heartbreaking as it is hysterical.
The most un-Christmassy production here is the Rep's world premiere of Restortation Comedy — "Restoration" referring to that of the English monarchy, and all the sexual frivolity, quick wit, boustiered cleavage and big-time decadence that era entailed. Playwright Amy Freed's combined take on two late-17th-century plays is an uneven but very amusing farce that follows the naughty antics of a supposed widow, an inveterate philanderer, and the crafty younger brother of an opulent lord.
Two of my favorite local actors appear, and as usual they're top-notch: comic genius Bhama Roget (who's also had me in tearful laugh-fits in things like Noises Off and The Constant Wife) and generally sublime Suzanne Bouchard (also fantastic in Misalliance, The Time of Your Life and a freaky Valley of the Dolls stage adaptation that no one else but me seemed to see a few years back). Ubiquitous Laurence Ballard (in four supporting roles!) is also among the solid 13-person cast. But what's best, as per usual at the Rep, is the art design — Hugh Landwehr's amazing sets look like pen-and-ink book illustrations come to life. (A mobile angry-mob illustration is particularly inspired.)
Speaking of books come alive, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women gets a spirited, affectionate stage treatment in Book-It's bright and cozy production of the novel's first volume. (Originally published in 1868, it was followed a year later by the hasty paycheck sequel Good Wives; eventually the two were merged into the edition still widely read today.)
Well it's no secret that I love me some Book-It, and this broader-appeal holiday piece retains all of the innovation we've come to expect — from Joy Marzec's pithy adaptation (which admirably keeps the central, relevant wartime separation in plain view), to the multilevel set by Jennifer Zeyl (employing every usable inch of space in the Seattle Center Theatre — including the aisles), to the musical score by Dan Dennis (with a dash of sweet choral singing and on-stage piano playing).
Two more of my favorite local thespians are on display here: Lori Larsen (who happened to star with Bhama Roget in Noises and Wife) is a fine Marmee March, and Eddie Levi Lee (who I adored in The Chosen) is a tower of intimidating strength as the elder Mr. Laurence. The actresses playing the March sisters, particularly the rowdy Rhonda J. Soikowski as Jo, are pitch-perfect in their respective parts. But I won't deny that I was most captivated by hottie Colin Byrne, the most toothsome Laurie Laurence I've ever seen. (He sure made me forget those December blues.)
A fantastic (and also very cute) cast, quick pace, and nice little twinge of poignancy make the Washington Ensemble Theatre's Wonderful Life: The Holidays on Capitol Hill my favorite of the bunch. It's a festive and delightful little hodgepodge of a show (concocted from interviews with Capitol Hill resident
s) with charming recitations / enactments of true-life love stories, local watering-hole lore, "I Anonymous" Stranger columns, Metro bus adventures, and the like. It all rings gloriously true, and gloriously heartfelt.
Each member of the six-person ensemble brings multiple characters and situations to life, and it all takes place on a cozy (and surprisingly versatile) storefront set that gets decorated gradually as the play progresses. And, if you're like me, when those vibrant holiday lights finally get a chance to twinkle in the final moments, you might just see yourself there.