The Old Man (Ryan Drummond, right) unveils his major award as Randy (Jake Miller), Ralphie (Jonah Broscow), and Mother (Abby Haug) express their puzzlement in 'A Christmas Story: The Musical' at SF Playhouse. (Jessica Palopoli)
I’m guessing here, but one of the main reasons A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life are such great works of art is that their heroes are shattered, and they must put themselves back together in the coldest time of the year. As the days fall shorter in 2017, these classics are a sharp reminder that winter is brutal when your mind is ripped to pieces.
And so we should be thankful for Keith Hennessy’s dance-theater-circus shocker, Sink. It's full of Christmas spirit — not just a sense of redemption and hope for the future, but also a rage at what the world and we have become. At the Joe Goode Studio until Dec. 9th, it's not really a holiday show, yet in that grand tradition it confronts injustice with wild bursts of sentimentality and moments of savage beauty and grace. In Hennessy, we have an unlikely and true heir to Dickens and Capra.
But before slipping into the world of Sink, two major holiday shows, A Christmas Story: The Musical and Shakespeare in Love opened this week at the SF Playhouse and the Marin Theatre Company. Both shows are based on well-regarded, overrated movies. And both are hindered by a desire to please, rather than taking on the vast and gnarled emotions of the season.
'A Christmas Story: The Musical'
We should all be wary of shows that take the title of a popular property, slap a colon behind it, and announce that it is “The Musical.” Whatever benefits singing might bring to a story, these additions are almost always more about business than art.
The story of nine-year-old Ralphie’s desperate and imaginative attempts to get a Red Ryder B.B. gun for Christmas has its charms, especially in the movie’s less hurried and more meandering aesthetic. We’re caught in the whirlwind of a boy’s dreams, willing to go along in his quest that is in many ways as tangled and vexing as Odysseus’ path home. For a child, everything is an epic journey.
There's a case to be made that musical numbers could bring Ralphie’s story to greater life, that the best showtunes catch the split between the vibrant force of dreams and the bitter consolations of reality. The problem is that A Christmas Story: The Musical isn’t so much interested in Ralphie as it is our memories of the movie about him.
The result is a vehicle and production that feels amped up for no discernible reasons. As the narrator, Christopher Reber delivers his lines with a forced jolliness that belies the off-key nature of the material. Ralphie's simple wish often gets lost in production numbers that are overblown and indifferently staged. Even the ornate set, which includes a slide, seems out of focus, messy, and unfinished.
You want the piece and the production to relax, to give us a chance to feel Ralphie's dreams on our own terms. But Christmas Story: The Musical has an aggressive spirit that demands that we succumb to its ideas of fun and frivolity. I think even a child might want to resist that.
'Shakespeare in Love'
There was always something vaguely distasteful about Harvey Weinstein’s ability to muscle Shakespeare in Love into a 1999 Best Picture Oscar, and now we can excise the "vaguely" part. The film has high-minded aspirations — Shakespeare, literary trivia, Judi Dench, the noteworthy presence of dramatist and screenwriter Tom Stoppard — but ultimately it's less a movie to enjoy than to get behind.
So it’s a bit of a surprise that there’s some life to Lee Hall’s stage adaption. It’s certainly not the absurd premise, that Shakespeare is suffering from writer’s block while writing the supposedly lost-to-history Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter. It's that every once and a while, the backstage drama springs to life, and you get a sense of what it must have felt like to produce a play in the Elizabethan age.
Still, those are scant and fleeting pleasures. Our only true sense of what it means to live and experience the era comes from Megan Trout’s constantly surprising and committed performance as Viola de Lesseps, Shakespeare’s love interest and eventual muse (in the play, not reality).
Trout hurls herself around the stage with an athlete’s abandon and seems to be acting in an entirely different piece, as if any of this mattered. You feel the spirit of the season in her performance, and at times that's enough to hold this professional, though uninspired, play and production aloft.
Nonetheless, I do wish that considering the Marin Theater Company’s adventurous 2017-18 season (plays by Thomas Bradshaw, Young Jean Lee, and Jordan Harrison), they had challenged our sense of holiday spirit, rather than pandering to its most mundane and well-worn concerns. Why should winter be bereft of ideas and revolution?
Keith Hennessey begins 'Sink' in a white Robert Cavalli sweatsuit and a goofy blond wig, while slowly dancing on a stool. In voiceover we hear a litany of his ideas, thoughts, and observations -- “People who have been surprised by Trump haven’t read the comments section,” “What does it mean that Colin Kaepernick isn’t registered to vote?” It’s at this point that we’re invited -- at first 10 volunteers, and then the rest of the audience -- to step behind the makeshift curtain into what turns out to be a different kind of world.
Curtains are becoming increasingly rare in contemporary theater and dance. When Hennessey asks us to join him on the other side, you wonder both what’s there and what’s been missing -- in all these other performances where curtains have vanished.
Sink is rather obliquely about the Las Vegas and Orlando mass shootings and, like the beginning of those tragedies, we make a choice: We walk behind a curtain, we enter a space, and we join a community. Among Hennessey’s many strange talents is his ability to talk us into a set of relations, something that feels real and of the world. He explains to us what is happening, makes us comfortable, and only then does he perform.
So if you have ever wanted to see a white shadow; the eruption of a pagan god dancing in the air before you; or a man falling through a Christmas tree of deformed disco balls, then Sink is the gift you need. It is a clarion call for justice, the miracle of surviving, and an amazing journey that embraces a volcano of everyday emotions, especially the ones of December.
Here is a winter present worth unwrapping.
'Sink' runs through Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Joe Goode Studio in San Francisco. For tickets and information, see here.
'A Christmas Story: The Musical' runs through Saturday, Jan. 13, at the SF Playhouse. For tickets and information, see here.
'Shakespeare in Love' runs through Saturday, Dec. 23, at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley. For tickets and information, see here.