Why Holiday Plays are Often as Perilous as the Holiday Season

(l to r) Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) in Kneehigh's production of '946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips' at the Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

The holiday tale is a tricky beast. We need stories that promise warmth and comfort -- an escape from the cold, dark days of winter. And yet they also have to have a bite to them, a recognition that death is always a hair's breath away. The Wizard of Oz would mean nothing without the threat of the Witch killing Dorothy; and It's a Wonderful Life is the story of a good man one slight step away from suicide.

These are the tensions that theater companies must navigate when producing holiday shows. Audiences are wary of simple happiness, and yet not particularly eager to embrace the brutal nature of the the season. As three recent productions -- Sons of the Prophet, Paradise Street, and 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphous Tips -- show, that balance is delicate and not at all easy to achieve.

Symbolism-heavy, sitcom-laced 'Sons of the Prophet'

Receiving its Bay Area premiere in a well acted production at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, Stephen Karam’s much lauded Sons of the Prophet takes it as a given that we are all the children of chaos and despair. He fills his play with soothsayers, storms, unrequited love, threats of illness, economic uncertainty, a craven journalist, and game attempts to forgive the failures of good and bad alike.

Brothers Joseph (Eric Kerr) and Charles (Stephen Kanaski) sit between the fake deer that started their downfall in New Conservatory Theatre's production of 'Sons of the Prophet' by Stephen Karam.
Brothers Joseph (Eric Kerr) and Charles (Stephen Kanaski) sit between the fake deer that started their troubles in the New Conservatory Theatre's production of 'Sons of the Prophet' by Stephen Karam. (Photo: Lois Tema)

But most importantly, there is the death of a beloved father and brother, and the fear that after that nothing will ever be right again. As we might expect and enjoy, his sons -- Joseph and Charles -- and their Uncle Bill struggle to both reconstitute and remain a family. The stable Joseph is uninsured and suffering from nerve damage, Bill is aging fast, and the delightful 18-year old Charles is still in need of care, both emotionally and economically.

Their problems are nagging and mundane. But the Pennsylvanian landscape of the play's setting, littered with an Old Testament’s worth of cities -- Bethlehem, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon -- bristles with a somber magic. Karam suggests that all this has happened before, that we walk in our ancestors’ footsteps, and that our memories of them are both painful and soothing.

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You can feel the symbolic force of the writing and you're ready to be swept up by it. Unfortunately, everything is stunted by the playwright's reliance on sitcom aesthetics. Veering between snappy jokes and sentimental lessons, the force of the drama never takes root. It drifts instead of builds. So despite the winning cast, we can't quite feel the bite of despair or the warmth of simple kindness.

'Paradise Street' energetic, yet untempered

Horror master Clive Barker (Hellraiser) might seem an unlikely Christmas playwright, and yet the creator of the murderous "Pinhead" certainly understands the mayhem lurking behind holiday cheer. His Paradise Street, receiving its Bay Area premiere under Stuart Bousel’s uneven direction at San Francisco's Exit Theatre, is a modern take on Ben Jonson’s city comedies, and at its best has the energy and beat of the street.

Quinn (Lyle McReddie) and Caroline (Jeunée Simon) contemplate some strange events in the Exit Theater's production of 'Paradise Street' by Clive Barker.
Quinn (Lyle McReddie) and Caroline (Jeunée Simon) contemplate some strange events in the Exit Theatre's production of 'Paradise Street' by Clive Barker. (Photo: Jay Yamada)

It’s a tale of two brothers who reunite on Christmas eve. The elder, Bonner, is a soldier and the unwise owner of a couple of grenades. The younger, Quinn, is sweet and a jazz musician of no talent, though it doesn’t seem to bother him much. As the boys bumble their way through the night, their adventures are offset by a host of characters with deeper concerns and fears.

A homeless Irishman, Mulrooney, has visions of his own death; a lonely, good-natured social worker, Jude, dreams of a better world, both for her clients, and, rather mystically, the universe; and Queen Elizabeth -- in full virgin warrior splendor -- pops up from the past with an an out of control ape and a regal sense of justice.

Barker gets the outlandish beauty of theater and the volatile mixture of hope and despair that Christmas brings. But like Bousel's production, the play is untempered. Everything is pitched to maximum effect without a corresponding sense of quiet and warmth. And that's when you know that horror can only take you so far.

'946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips' is curiously distancing

British company Kneehigh's production of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Emma Rice and co-adapted for the stage by Rice and author Michael Morpurgo from his children’s story, shares similar ambitions to Sons of the Prophet and Paradise Street. It is quite self-consciously aware of the strange mixture of warmth and brutality that audiences seem to seek out in the winter.

Lily (Katy Owen) reunites with her cat in Kneehigh's production of '946: The Amazing Story of Adophus Tips' at the Berkeley Rep.
Lily (Katy Owen) reunites with her cat in Kneehigh's production of '946: The Amazing Story of Adophus Tips' at the Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

Yet, Rice’s take on Morpurgo 's tale of 11-year old Lily, her missing cat, and the second world war’s effect on the out-of-the-way English village of Slapton, is so frenzied and intent on making every moment memorable, that the production sacrifices reflection and storytelling for kitsch and pizazz. Rice gives us the requisite blues band, farm animal puppets, overly broad and cutesy acting, and a narrative strategy designed to shed tears every five minutes.

The effect of all of this is curiously distancing. We're asked to react with great emotion over and over again, as the play rushes from one dramatic event to the next. When the husband of the adult Lily dies in the first few scenes, the outsized level of significance of his death is strange. As the cast mournfully sings to "let him go . . . he's not gone, just gone away," I felt as if I'd been dragged to a stranger's funeral.

There's nothing wrong in having characters grieve over a minor one. But Lily's dead husband is so sketchily presented and irrelevant to the plot that you feel manipulated by the demand to care. And that's the effect of the whole production -- a headlong race to the big moments no matter what. So the many deaths in the play feel haphazard and meaningless. In 946, the loss of a father, husband, comrade, or battalion of innocent men is merely an opportunity to sing and dance in nifty ways.

When Rice evokes Bertolt Brecht as both an aesthetic forefather and a spiritual aide — “In the dark times/Will there also be singing?” — it’s hard to tell whether she’s cynical or stupid. And that goes for the call outs to Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr., too. It's just fluff where content should be.

There's a massive amount of talent on stage, from the actors to the designers, but it's all in the service of a distasteful infantilizing of the audience. The most telling moment of the evening happens in the middle of the “staged” curtain call, where the actors force the entire theater into a goofy dance-along. That’s what clowns do to children at birthday parties. It's a disservice to the reality of the world we live in and all those who try to bring true light to the holidays.

And so as I was leaving the theater I thought of an elementary school Christmas pageant I'd just seen, and how the story of Christ's birth catches the balance of what these three pieces are struggling to achieve. Mary and Joseph's journey to the safety of the manger is sharpened and deepened by the weather. The unrelenting nature of the season is leavened by the birth of a child. The nativity harmonizes these extremes and presents them as one and the same experience, a narrative trick as magical as the story it tells.

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'Sons of the Prophet' runs through Sunday, Dec. 18 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

'Paradise Street' runs through Saturday, Dec. 17 at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

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'946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips' runs through Sunday, Jan. 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.

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