Holiday theater roundup
Anung’s First American Christmas
Vitalist Theatre and Premiere Theatre and Performance at Theatre Building Chicago. By Carl Nordgren. Adapted by Robin Metz. Dir. Elizabeth Carlin-Metz. With ensemble cast.
In the sea of Nutcrackers, elves and jolly fat guys who dominate the stage during family-friendly performances this time of year, it’s refreshing to find a holiday play with not a jingle bell in sight. Vitalist Theatre’s production—based on a Native American folktale about a pre-Columbian Ojibway boy sent on his vision quest—is a fresh look at the traditional story of Christmas, and at times it’s visually stunning thanks to the magical, Julie Taymor–esque masks and puppets created by Tracy Otwell for an energetic ensemble. But their cleverness and humor get lost in this overwritten adaptation. Running at more than two-and-a-half hours and peppered with dialogue often hard for even adults to follow, this isn’t a play for unsophisticated theatergoers. —Judy Sutton Taylor
Congo Square Theatre Company at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. By Langston Hughes. Dir. McKinley Johnson. With Alexis Rodgers, Emily Butts, Peter Gaona, Jesse Dean Stanford.
Congo Square’s fifth annual stage adaptation of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity begins with a prophetic bang when Rodgers unleashes her fierce vocals. Along with the sunny African garb, Butts’s and Peter Gaona’s skillful (if a tad melodramatic) modern dancing appeases the eye, and occasional contemporary twists (even Beyoncé gets a shout-out from the flamboyant wise men) infuse the biblical tale with a refreshing dose of humor. But it’s our ears that reap the fruit of the performers’ labor. Regardless of religious affiliation, it’s nearly impossible to keep your feet from stomping and hands from clapping by the end of the performance as the cast floods the aisles with exuberant gospel song and dance. —Jessica Herman
A Christmas Carol
Goodman Theatre. By Charles Dickens. Adapted by Tom Creamer. Dir. William Brown. With Larry Yando, Ron Rains, Ryan Cowhey.
In its 31st year of presenting the classic Dickens holiday tale, the Goodman doesn’t disappoint. Even though the plot (Scrooge is a grumpy old man visited by three Christmas ghosts, yadda, yadda) is almost as engraved in our collective psyche as the story of Jesus’s birth, the elaborate sets (particularly Scrooge’s bedroom) and Yando’s crotchety-yet-whimsical portrayal of Ebenezer kept us engaged for the entire 90 minutes—and we weren’t the only ones. Looking around the theater toward play’s end, we noticed folks in the box seats literally on the edge of their seats, waiting for Scrooge’s change of heart and for young Cowhey (who, in his third year as Tiny Tim, fortunately has yet to experience any growth spurts) to yell out, “God bless us, one and all!” At the curtain call, when the cast sings “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” you can’t help but sing along. —Kevin Aeh
The David Bowie Hepzikat Funky Velvet Flarney Solstice Spectacular, Live…from Space! (David Bowie’s Christmas Special 1977 Network Edit)
New Millenium Theatre Company at National Pastime Theater. By Steven Attanasie. Dir. Attanasie. With ensemble cast.
Re-creating an unearthed David Bowie Christmas special that never was is a stroke of genius. New Millennium Theatre Company’s imagined TV special draws on actual late-’70s, early-’80s cash-in television, such as The Stars Wars Holiday Special, packing in inappropriate celebrity appearances (Charo, naturally) and stock plot devices (Bowie’s nemesis Bizarro Bowie). The NMT plays loose with its title, as many of the duets in this karaoke solstice musical are taken from the mid-’80s, when Bowie was in full commercial mode, not ’77. The Ghost of Freddie Mercury (à la Dickens) stands out in this over-the-top, rowdy BYOB affair. We hope he might visit every year. —John Dugan
Drinking & Writing Vol. IV: The 12 Steps of Xmas
Neo-Futurists at Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph. By Steve Mosqueda and Phil Ridarelli. With Mosqueda and Ridarelli.
Frank Capra never imagined a yuletide show quite like this one. And it’s not just because Mosqueda and Ridarelli—in their interactive, monologue-heavy ode to Christmas, creativity and chugging—huddle with their audience in the Biograph lobby. It’s more because the two call Capra a “dick” for finking on Hollywood types during the McCarthy era. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but that assumes the show has a path, as it winds through screeds about how Americans are addicted to Christmas and takes bizarre detours into the numerological significance of the number 12. The erratic show never actually explores the connection between drinking and writing; both performers instead deliver monologues on holiday-timed sexual conquests. Which made us thankful it took place in the lobby and, therefore, that much closer to the bar. —Jonathan Messinger
The Hipmas Carol
HeadCheese Fat Boss Productions at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. By Tyler Bohne and Patrick Zielinski. With Bohne, Zielinski, Ritch Valadez.
Jive performance poets Bohne and Zielinski perform Hipmas—now in its ninth year—as if they’re two soused uncles who’ve just pushed away from the table, hoping to be asked to retell their story as they feign reluctance. Tapping into the power of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by breaking it down to its prime elements, they infuse it with verbal jazz that descends from Lord Buckley’s Scrooge. Some reheated blues about holiday shopping delays the groove, until Zielinski starts in as a truly haunting first spirit with Bohne’s take on the old miser riffing on George C. Scott. Though seated at the back of the stage for the hour-long performance, Valadez is a crucial part of the show, his revelatory guitar work serving as its spine: the rhythm section guiding Bohne and Zielinski’s skittering spoken word. Though cheesy set design occasionally breaks the illusion, Hipmas proves to be a story worth repeating. —Scott Smith
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol
Theater Wit at Theatre Building Chicago. By Tom Mula. Dir. Steve Scott. With Mula.
Want to know what it’s like in hell? Two options: You could attend Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at the Theatre Building, or you could actually believe Mula’s overacted interpretation of the dark abyss holding Marley’s soul captive. Sounds harsh (maybe purgatory is more like it), but it’s tough to sit through a one-man play that retells a story everyone from my niece to my nana knows, especially when the execution of the “shake things up” gimmick is little more than posing as a handful of characters, all with cringe-inducing accents (think “allo, govnah, jolly ol’ day, ain’t it chap” in four different keys). Still, there are glimmers of compelling storytelling that might seduce a particular audience. In fact, it might be just what Santa is bringing my niece and my nana. —Heather Shouse
The Snow Queen
Victory Gardens. Music and lyrics by Michael Smith. Dir. Frank Galati. With Blair Robertson, Patrick Andrews.
With nary an elf, a baby Jesus or a jolly St. Nick in sight (although reindeer do cameo), The Snow Queen forges ahead with its own holiday-appropriate tale. Based on a children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen, this Scandinavia-set yarn puts a young girl front and center as she braves a wintry journey to save her best friend, a boy who has fallen under the spell of a frosty queen. As with a good Disney production, enough visual bells and whistles keep children entranced while the sly wit aims straight for adults. Although the play veers into hippy-dippy territory on occasion, it’s rescued by Galati’s inventive staging (in which the folk musicians onstage double as characters) and an ebullient score that mixes Broadway, blues and John Denver, among other genres. —Jason A. Heidemann