Around this time of year, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the belief that there’s nothing going on around here except endless, mothballed productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.
It’s true that there are probably more chestnuts on Bay Area stages than there are roasting on an open fire (at least in these parts). But it’s a “yes, and...”-type situation: The typical holiday season fare makes up only a small part of what’s on offer.
I was reminded of this fact over the weekend when, in a single day, I went from the kitsch jewel that is the annual Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace to a head-spinning, hip-shimmying celebration of Cuban food, music and motion at Dance Mission Theater.
Watching Bay Area residents of all ages and ethnic backgrounds dressed up in bonnets and tailcoats, practicing their English accents, Morris dancing steps and sea-chantey singing, filled me with a kind of awe. There is such dedication and passion in the Dickens Fair community. And to go from this longstanding evocation of a quasi-mythical Christmas of yore in all its mustachioed, Victorian glory, to a very different yet equally committed cultural time-warp -- a recreation of a night out at Havana’s fabled Tropicana nightclub -- was deft proof of the depth and diversity of the Bay Area’s holiday season nightlife.
The organizers of the latter event (CubaCaribe and Dance Mission Theater) drew on members of the local Cuban community as well as nubile dancers imported from the homeland to conjure the spirit of the Caribbean island. The costumes were lurid and sparkly, the energy of the performances, unflagging. I staggered home, happy and exhausted, with rum on my tongue and the rhythm of the rumba in my ears.
With nods to shows that are all about Christmas, productions that capture the holiday spirit more obliquely, and events that apparently have little to do with the festive season beyond being scheduled to run in it, this week’s performing arts selections hopefully reflect more of the vitality and breadth of our region’s holiday time programming.
Now through Saturday, Dec. 19: Brian Copeland’s The Jewelry Box at The Marsh, San Francisco. When you’re a 6-year-old kid growing up in the East Bay in the 1970s, how do you go about scrimping together the astronomical sum of $11.97 in order to buy your mom the ultimate Christmas gift? That’s the challenge facing the young protagonist in this autobiographical one-man show by Brian Copeland, the creator of long-running solo theater hits like Not a Genuine Black Man. Copeland is a wry, hilarious observer of his own childhood and surroundings. But there’s also a serious core to what’s essentially a heartwarming holiday show -- especially in the way the performer describes the unsettling (and sadly still prescient) economic and racial disparities of Bay Area life 40 years ago.
Now through Sunday, Dec. 27: Smuin Ballet presents The Christmas Ballet at various locations throughout the Bay Area. The Smuin Ballet has been presenting this holiday tradition for more than 20 years. What keeps people coming back -- other than the chance to enjoy a dance show that isn’t The Nutcracker or some derivative of The Nutcracker at this time of year -- is the athleticism and fun of the choreography, the colorful creativity of the mise-en-scene, and the fact that there are always new, bite-sized items on the menu to stop things from feeling too much like party leftovers. This year’s production include a couple of fresh segments -- a take on the beloved Christmas carol “Joy to the World” by company member dancer Nicole Haskins and choreographer-in-residence Amy Seiwert’s setting of “Home for the Holidays.”
Wednesday, Dec. 2 - Saturday, Jan. 2: Theatreworks presents Emma at the Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto. In January 1814, when Jane Austen embarked upon Emma, her novel about a young woman’s misguided attempts to play Cupid, the writer reportedly said, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” On the surface, composer/lyricist Paul Gordon's bubbly take on the character is way more positive. Yet while Gordon’s 2007 musical (getting a re-run at Theatreworks, which premiered the piece in 2007) is on the whole a lovely, sugar-dusted confection -- aided by the frosted pastel hues and clean lines of the Regency country manor–inspired set and the truffle-contoured costumes -- shadows fitfully lurk under those empire-lined petticoats. Austen's acerbic social commentary can't help but smudge the musical's shiny patina: The song "Hartfield" succinctly captures the pettiness, boredom, and claustrophobia of life around Emma's Highbury home, while the ensemble number "Relations" (about the pros — and superficial cons — of being well-connected by birth) serves to highlight 19th-century class issues.
Friday, Dec 4 - Saturday, Dec. 5: Sarah Shelton Mann: Erasing Time at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
There are few figures who’ve exerted as great an influence on the Bay Area experimental performance scene as the multi-award-winning choreographer Sarah Shelton Mann. So it’s fitting that the first-ever retrospective of the artist’s career should be an epic one. During each of the two marathon, five-hour-long events at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend, Mann will direct, live in the space, some of her closest and longest-running collaborators in a world premiere that brings together dance, spoken word, music, and video installations. The event also includes a reimagining of one of Shelton Mann’s most seminal works, Religare, from 1986. Bay Area performance stalwarts like Keith Hennessy, Jess Curtis and Kim Epifano made up the original cast of this desolate, violent, quasi-ritualistic piece; those same artists (plus many more) are part of YBCA’s celebration of Shelton Mann’s career.
Friday, Dec 4 - Sunday, Jan. 10: Shotgun Players present The Mousetrap at The Ashby Stage, Berkeley. For anyone who’s already had their fill of red-nosed reindeers, sugarplum fairies and their ilk this holiday season, the Berkeley-based company Shotgun Players has the perfect antidote in the shape of theater history’s most famous murder-mystery -- and longest running show of any kind -- The Mousetrap. Agatha Christie’s comedic 1952 potboiler investigates the fallout of a gruesome crime committed on the premises of a remote guest house. The fantastical whodunnit famously ends with a far-out twist -- one which audiences are traditionally asked to keep to themselves. Shotgun Players revels in presenting holiday programming that’s just enough outside the realms of the typical fare to broaden the audience’s palette without putting them off their Christmas hams entirely. And this show, helmed by the company’s artistic director, Patrick Dooley, appears to fit the mandate.
And a few more suggestions:
Wednesday, Dec. 2 - Thursday Dec. 10: Absolutely Fabulous Live!: The Holiday Episodes at Oasis, San Francisco