RI Celebrates the Holidays with Theater

The sights and sounds of the holiday season are upon us, and nowhere is that more evident than in the abundance of choice we have in holiday-themed theater in Rhode Island. And, as in years past, the challenge remains: How do you produce yet another “fresh new approach” to A Christmas Carol (which produces the challenge of writing yet another fresh, new piece on A Christmas Carol)? Some theaters openly embrace the quandary as if completely unaware that they are competing with roughly half a dozen other houses putting up essentially the same play. Trinity Rep has the money, the pro talent and the history; others have the small-town charm, the “new adaptation” or even the huge puppets. Some theaters go for non-Dickens holiday fare, choosing to stay out of the Scrooge business, while some simply create their own original works while staying true to the spirit of the time.

For some families, A Christmas Carol is a tradition, a sacrament (which in turn makes for a guaranteed success for those companies who do choose to take it on year after year). There is something to be said for tradition and any one of the Ebenezers hitting the stage this year may very well induce you to let your cold, cold heart melt a little. However, for those who may want something actually “fresh and new,” Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield delivers again with the Andy Hoover-penned Planet Christmas. Hoover is CTC’s playwright-in-residence and he took on the challenge of a Christmas play knowing full well that the traditional (and non-traditional – Frank O’Donnell’s Ant’ny Claus: A Dysfunctional Family Christmas is back this year, opening at Academy Players Q2Q Blackbox Theatre on December 3) themes of all holiday plays loom large, but endure for a reason.

“Something is enduring about the Christmas spirit, even if the ways of celebrating (or not celebrating) Christmas drastically change from person to person and year to year,” says Hoover. So how far afield can you go from the typical Christmas iconography and traditions while still retaining the “Christmas-y” feeling that you get from It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol? Both of which, I love, by the way.”

Providence’s Barker Playhouse takes on Wonderful Life this year (December 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13) directed by Alex Duckworth, a notable talent who makes Life his Rhode Island swan song before he departs for points south. For more information, visit playersri.org or call 401-273-0590. Also taking on the classic tale is Ocean State Theatre Company (December 2 – 27). For more information, visit oceanstatetheatre.org. Christmas Carol can be seen at Trinity Rep, this year helmed by artistic director Curt Columbus with original music by Richard Cumming, through December 31 (trinityrep.com). Other traditional Carols are being produced at Artists’ Exchange (in Cranston at both the Theatre 82 space and the historic Park Theatre, December 10 -19; visit artists-exchange.org/achristmascarol.html) and the Stadium Theater in Woonsocket December 4 – 13 (stadiumtheatre.com/events/a-christmas-carol/114 — they promise giant Wurlitzers and flying characters “unlike any other!”). Foster’s Swamp Meadow Community Theatre offers a twist on Carol December 5 – 20 (swampmeadow.org/productions/a-christmas-carol) as does Westerly’s Granite Theatre (granitetheatre.com) through December 20.

A little further afield in the tradition stands the 3rd annual collaboration between the What Cheer, Shakespeare? Theater Company and the Big Nazo Puppet Lab. This unique take on Christmas Carol runs December 11 – 20 at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (courthousearts.org/events/christmas-carol-featuring-the-big-nazo-pupppets/). Another singular touch on the theme is given by Radioactive Theatre Company December 4 – 12 at the Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick. Motif’s Shannon McLoud writes and directs Carol’s Christmas, a family friendly comedic and musical romp.

Hoover’s Planet Christmas hopes to join the holiday pantheon by nodding to the classics while not remaining overly derivative. “So many Christmas entertainments really center on family, which is great! And, of course, they center around, you know, winter. Also great! But I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write a Christmas play fundamentally set in summer, and starring people who aren’t related … they don’t have the close bonds of family. Instead they have a relationship kind of on the other side of the scale: they’re co-workers,” says Hoover. The play is initially set in the titular Planet Christmas superstore on a fictional NJ boardwalk. Hoover’s play intersperses scenes of past and future, over the span of 1,000 years, all in the same location.

“There’s a surprising amount of crazy sci-fi/fantasy going on in the traditional Christmas stories,” Hoover enthuses. “Ghosts! Alternate histories where you were never born. Time travel, essentially! And how we view and celebrate Christmas changes over these grand timelines, but there are certain universalities that always remain. So, in my play, all of these characters in their different timelines … a shipwrecked sailor in 1509, a rebellious black sheep daughter from a wealthy family in 1840, a war-widowed Christmas tree farmer in 1945, a skeptical researcher studying the history of the town in 2509 … and of course, the main plotline, the workers at this Planet Christmas store in the late ’90s, early ’00s … all of them have differing attitudes toward this Christmas Spirit, and the realities of their various lives and circumstances. It’s something that ties them together, regardless of year … or the time of year.”

Planet Christmas premieres at CTC December 4 – 20 (contemporarytheatercompany.com), another entry in the RI holiday theater tradition. What we choose to see may be based on geography, budget or simply knowing someone in the cast (don’t forget Mixed Magic Theater’s offerings or even Empire Review’s Winter show December 6), but one thing remains true for us all: At this time of year, we seek the comfort of the familiar, a chance to lift our spirits in communion with others. Celebrate in your own way at a theater near you.

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