No Humbugs Here: Holiday theater moves in to the Ocean State

A certain cynicism creeps in during the holidays as an evolutionary response to all of the unmitigated cheer that surrounds us before the gunmetal grey stoicism of the new year sets in. Christmas, for the most part, gets first billing, and our entertainment often reflects those segments of society who are either too disaffected or too cool to jump into the pool of cheer with both feet. 

Theater is not immune to this phenomenon, and, in previous years, there have been a fair amount of “alternative” holiday offerings in RI beyond the umpteenth version of A Christmas Carol. However, 2019 has gone back to a mostly all-in joyfest, with even more Dickens than ever. But there are a few surprises among the Wonderful Carols. From storefronts to moving trains, Christmas is on the move in RI Theater. Here’s a brief listing of what’s out there to see as you attempt to stave off the winter blues and get in the spirit of the season. 

A Christmas Carol

“Trinity Repertory Company’s version has lasted for over 40 years, in large part because we reimagine it every year from the ground up, returning to the great source material in order to find something fresh and unexpected. The story also has the remarkable ability to respond to new sources of delight and wonder, taking them in and making them a part of the annual telling.” – Curt Columbus, artistic director, Trinity Rep. 

The gold standard of the Carols is always Trinity Rep’s annual deep dive into Dickens, and this year promises to be no different. Jude Sandy stars as Scrooge this time around with all your company favorites popping in in various roles. 

Trinity’s version runs through Dec 29 in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater. For reservations, call the Trinity Rep box office at 401-351-4242.

In addition to Trinity, ambitious versions of Carol are being offered up by The Granite in Westerly (Nov 20 – Dec 22) and Artists’ Exchange presents their 16th annual take Dec 12 -22. The Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket promises a “fresh adaptation … brimming with extravagant scenery, lavish costumes, dramatic lighting, fog and flying spirits!” (Dec 13-22) and CTC in Wakefield brings us Matthew Fraza’s adaptation Dec 5 -22. 

Flying spirits aside, perhaps the most unique take on Dickens out there this season will be on a moving train, delivered by Marley Bridges Theatre Company out on Aquidneck island. On Saturdays, from November 30 to December 21st, the group features afternoon and evening trips from Portsmouth Junction Station complete with an “interactive retelling of the Charles Dickens classic…Music, laughter, food and spirits [all puns intended, one supposes]” and “a dining journey along the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad in our custom-designed theater car featuring special tables for two all facing the center stage.” Not an all-ages experience, Marley Bridges stresses the “festive”atmosphere of these events and recommends that the little ones stay at home. Tickets are pricey, but those looking for a unique way to experience Scrooge’s dilemma may want to jump on this train now. 

The usual alternative to Dickens is George Bailey’s Christmas agonies, and The Gamm delivers with It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Dec 5 – 22. Call 401-723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org for more info. Another flavor in that vein is A Miracle on 34th Street, and RISE Playhouse in Woonsocket serves up some belief Dec 6 – 15. And what else screams Christmas Eve besides A Visit from St. Nicholas – aka ’Twas the Night Before Christmas? On Nov 30, PPAC presents the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and Channel 12’s Patrick Little as guest narrator. 

Newport Playhouse keeps the farces flying with A Christmas Cactus from Nov 21 – Dec 31. Directed by Tony Annicone, Cactus is a not-so-subtle homage to both Dickens and romantic comedy. Epic Theatre Co. offers up Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever from Dec 6 – 15 at The James and Gloria Maron Cultural Arts Center (Academy Players’ home space) in Providence. Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick serves up a double helping of something different with The Gift of the Magi (developed from the O. Henry short story) and Balls by George Cameron Grant, a tale of talking ornaments from Dec 5 – 20.

Those looking for something a little more skewed can take themselves to Providence Place Mall Nov 29 – Dec 22 and see a storefront performance of David Sedaris’ irreverent The Santaland Diaries, with a rotating cast (including Epic’s Kevin Broccoli) produced by Spectrum Theatre Ensemble. It’s an adults-only left-of-center nugget that was a niche piece on NPR for years until adapted for the stage. If you were looking for a ray of snark among the sea of joy listed above, here’s your beam, sunshine. 

And finally, Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story is reenactedby Living Literature (livingliterature.org) at the Cranston Public Library on Dec 14.  This group has been around since 1996 without much fanfare, so take the kids (and the adults) to Cranston for a perfect blend of tradition and modern angst. 

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