Beyond the Call of Carols

Last year, Motif combined theater and religion and discussed just why A Christmas Carol should be so ubiquitous at this time of year. For many, Christmas is the one time they get out of the house and experience live theater. A Christmas Carol is the perfect way to infuse that holiday spirit into the kids and that one aunt whose last foray into non-televised performance was the Rockettes in 1988. Theaters all over RI continue to produce their annual Dickens ritual, of course, with Trinity Rep, RI Stage Ensemble, Cranston’s Artists’ Exchange, Kingston’s Courthouse and others gamely finding ways to present tradition with a twist. (And, lest we forget, Frank O’Donnell’s 4 installment of his Christmas vision – Ant’ny Claus: A Dysfunctional North Pole! – opens Dec 5 at Theatreworks in Woonsocket). What often gets lost amid the competing Carols, however, are holiday shows that seek to boost the spirit without succumbing to yet another rehash of Tiny Tim’s travails.
One notable exception may be The Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield who does, in fact, present the same Dickens-inspired Christmas show to sold-out audiences each year. However, playwright Christopher Durang’s darkly absurdist comedy, Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, is so twisted in its adherence to the inner logic of the original that it really should be required viewing for anyone trying to shake off the saccharine gloom of the original. Here, Dickens’ unsung hero, Mrs. Cratchit, is the star and Scrooge’s ethereal entourage simply cannot get their act together. “Working on (this show) has been an absolute blast,” says Guest Director Kira Hawkridge. “It is definitely ‘Durang does Christmas.’ It has its own sense of holiday spirit and CTC is the perfect company to tackle something like this. It is definitely a wild ride!” CTC opens Christmas Binge Dec 5 and runs through the 21, with two shows on the final day (2pm and 7pm). For more details and tickets, visit contemporarytheatercompany.com/mrs-bob-cratchits-wild-christmas-binge
Most holiday shows tend to seek something of that spirit– an uplifting message of family, tradition, and a sense of community. That would be an apt description of Mixed Magic Theatre’s mission statement, and their holiday offerings are gloriously homespun and unique. Running Dec 4 – 7 at their beautiful new performance space on Mineral Spring Ave in Pawtucket, Mixed Magic presents their annual Great Holiday Traditions, a more or less cabaret-style offering that combines storytelling with traditional music that always tugs at the heart. This year, Thomas Mann, an Air Force Iraq War veteran, co-directs with Kim Pitts-Wiley for a focus on veterans and those still serving in our Armed Forces. A live holiday mixtape of sorts, Mann’s production features a variety of songs that range from sacred to contemporary and presented by some of the state’s leading performer/singers.
Also on the docket for Mixed Magic is the 15 Annual production of A Kwanzaa Song, directed by Victor Terry. Written by Mixed Magic patriarch Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, A Kwanzaa Song is described as “a Middle Passage play” (The “Middle Passage” was the stage of the slave trade in which millions of people from Africa were initially shipped to the New World.) The production combines elements of music, dance, poetry and storytelling to connect the African and African-American experience in “a celebration of the greatness of the human spirit.” For those seeking a message of hope amid dire predictions, A Kwanzaa Song delivers just as powerfully as A Christmas Carol – perhaps even more so when the chains that keep families apart and spirits broken are not forged of our own making. A Kwanzaa Song runs Dec 11 – 21. For more information, visit mmtri.com.
Further alternatives for holiday theater experiences abound, with Providence’s Wilbury Group presenting Chifferobe’s “fully immersive theatrical experience” Holiday in Swingtime! Dec 11 and 12. Chifferobe specializes in boutique vintage entertainment, adhering to the ethic that performers of the Golden Age needed to be triple-threats and harkens back to a time of speakeasies and Anything Goes-style musical numbers. Their dance troupe, The TropiGals will deliver “swing dancing, big band music and exciting musical productions.”(see pin-up pg 31) The spirits lifted this time around will be more of the liquid variety, but the ghosts of flappers past will still echo beneath the always unsettling Southside Cultural Center’s high ceilings. There are only two chances to experience this unique holiday event (Dec 11 and 12 from 8-11pm). Guests are encouraged to wear cocktail and/or vintage attire. Visit thewilburygroup.org for more information.
Of course, there are numerous holiday-themed productions, some overt, some more subtle. The current production at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren, Trip to Bountiful, sneaks in some themes of homecoming and family ties while Foster’s Swamp Meadow Community Theatre goes full bore with a stage production of the classic film, A Christmas Story. Ralphie’s adventures with the leg lamp can be seen Dec 5-14 ( swampmeadow.org/box-office.)
The always unique Empire Revue brings us their Straight-Up Holiday Show! (exclamation points abound in many of this year’s offerings, it seems), featuring “a sleigh-full of sketches, shenanigans, kick-ass live music and (cryptically) magic” on Sunday, Dec 7 (8pm at Providence’s AS220).
So, should we disregard A Christmas Carol as a tired old warhorse, slogging through the same story again and again to an overwhelmed (or uninformed) public? Of course not. Traditions exist for a reason and many families count on that tradition year after year. However, RI is in a unique position, with so many theaters and so much diversity among them, to deliver alternatives in abundance. And, seeing how many of these alternatives are fast becoming traditions of their own, there is no reason that Ant’ny Claus might not hold pride of place alongside Tiny Tim in a Cranston family living room this year. “God bless all of youze” may not have the same eloquence, but the spirit speaks all languages.