5 Plays to See for the Holidays (That Aren't 'A Christmas Carol')

Ah, December. The most magical time of year... unless the relentless onslaught of the holly-daze leaves you cold.

I gave up counting how many Christmas-themed theater shows are currently running in the Bay Area, from the old standby A Christmas Carol to fanciful mashups such as Christmas in OZ and Peaches Christ’s Femlins. (Not to mention at least eight versions of The Nutcracker.) And while these clearly beloved classics and comedies appeal to a specific, doubtlessly enthusiastic audience, for the non-denominational arts lover in December it can be difficult to find secular alternatives.

Happily, they do exist. Here are just a few standouts to get you started on your mistletoe-free theater spree.

James Aaron Oh, Will Livingston, and Caitlin Evenson in Shualee Cook's 'An Invitation Out,' presented by Quantum Dragon Theatre. (Morgan Finley King)

'An Invitation Out'

By Shualee Cook, Quantum Dragon Theatre

The Bay Area’s only theatre company dedicated to the production of science fiction and fantasy plays presents the West Coast premiere of Shualee Cook’s An Invitation Out. Billed as a “science fiction comedy of manners,” this social-media inspired futuristic comedy is set in an online virtual reality, where one can assume and shed identities with the click of a button. But can anything convince them to “unplug” and rejoin the world of the Outdwellers? Anchored by a nine-person cast of Bay Area stalwarts, and directed by Kieran Beccia, this play delves into the questions that make us human—while wrapped in neo-Victorian/cyberspace glamour. (Runs Dec. 14-29; Details here.)

Robert Ernst as Niels Bohr in 'Copenhagen,' by Michael Frayn, presented by Indra's Net Theater.
Robert Ernst as Niels Bohr in 'Copenhagen,' by Michael Frayn, presented by Indra's Net Theater. (Irene Young)

'Copenhagen'

By Michael Frayn, Indra’s Net Theater

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From science fiction to scientists, Bay Area Theater is carving out a space for scientific discourse of many kinds, and Indra’s Net Theater is at the forefront. As a company focused on producing plays about hard science, their characters include Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Shrinivasa Ramanujan. This year they're reprising their successful 2013 production, Copenhagen—a play about a secret meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg to discuss the viability of an atomic bomb. After new information about the historic meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg came to light in 2018, Michael Frayn made some changes to his Tony Award-winning script to reflect the additional material. This is the Bay Area premiere of the newly revised script, and a chance to revisit this ethical dilemma as it plays out in the afterlife. (Runs Dec. 19, 2019-Jan. 12, 2020. Details here.)

Pamela Reed in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of Sarah Ruhl's world premiere, 'Becky Nurse.' (Kevin Berne)

'Becky Nurse'

By Sarah Ruhl, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Wrestling with the complex reverberations of the Salem Witch trials through the eyes of a present-day descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the wrongfully accused and murdered, this world premiere production ties the two together with dark comedy and a magickal reckoning. Written by Sarah Ruhl, an award-winning playwright whose deft and inspired comedies have been produced five other times on the Berkeley Rep stage, and starring Pamela Reed in the titular role, Becky Nurse will provide a bracing antidote to the “holiday spirit” with its nods to the occult, female power, and the art of speaking out. (Previews from Dec. 12, show runs through Jan. 26, 2020. Details here.)

Megan Trout as Alice in 'Vinegar Tom,' by Caryl Churchill, presented by Shotgun Players. (Robbie Sweeny)

'Vinegar Tom'

By Caryl Churchill, Shotgun Players

Speaking of the occult and female power, Caryl Churchill’s exploration of witchy women Vinegar Tom gets the Shotgun Players treatment this month on the Ashby Stage. Directed by Ariel Craft, with music direction by Daniel Alley and original music by songwriter Diana Lawrence, this audacious nod to Brechtian “epic theater” examines the ruling power’s propensity to demonize its challengers—one witch trial and contemporary ballad at a time. Celebrate the continuation of the Bay Area’s spontaneous Caryl Churchill revival with the fourth play of hers to be produced this year on area stages, with a fifth to open at Magic Theatre next April. (Runs Dec. 6, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020. Details here.)

Devin A. Cunningham and Funmi Lola in the African-American Shakespeare Company's annual presentation of 'Cinderella.'
Devin A. Cunningham and Funmi Lola in the African-American Shakespeare Company's annual presentation of 'Cinderella.' (Lance Huntley)

'Cinderella'

By the African American Shakespeare Company

It’s fun to spend time with family during the holidays, but there are only so many times one can bring the kids to the Nutcracker before “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” imprints itself permanently into your auditory cortex. Spare yourself and take the kiddies instead to Cinderella, presented by the African American Shakespeare Company. This traditional offering, now in its 18th year, is an elegant, big-hearted foray into a world of lovers, dreamers, and fairy magic (not the sugar plum kind) sprinkled throughout. This year’s action-packed weekend of shows also includes an activity-filled afternoon tea with a meet-and-greet opportunity with the cast, and treats for all. Directed by Sherri Young. (Runs Dec. 20-22. Details here.)