Thursday 1 December 2016

The Day Before Christmas is a chummy tale 

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Why does Christmas generate such angst annoyance dyspepsia among families? For a host of reasons it sometimes seems there's a profound sense of loss in our 1st World privileged enclave here. As if Norman Rockwell not only died but took all his illusory paintings to the grave with him.

In the hands of playwrights Stacey Kaser and Alison Kelly, the best way to deal with the avoidance / avoidance syndrome lots of people suffer around The Season is a situation comedy 2016 style. In the manner of Roseanne Barr doing a remake of the Brady Bunch through today's iPad lenses. 

WYSIWYG : Kaser & Kelly have collaborated previously. Conversations With My Mother played at the Gateway two seasons back. For her part Kelly is best known locally for the Mom's the Word series. TDBC falls squarely into those camps. Situational wit based on scenes redolent of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon stories. Reflected back through a gilded convex mirror, the kind Nana used to have over her fireplace.

Some shows start v-e-r-y slowly, then get more clippety-clop in a couple of scenes. TDBC starts off with one of the best opening scenes seen on local stages -- a quicky rollback of the set in hazed lighting from its later Christmas Eve chaos -- instantly! we're back to the relative calm of November 1st. From there the scene trudges somewhat dutifully & predictably through the next 50 minutes (and days...) of exposition until we finally get to the set-up for Act 2's various climactic antics.

Quicky plot sum-up : Mom Alex (Jennifer Clement) is a workaholic caterer who loves Christmas decoration themes for both her clients and for her family. This year's homegrown theme is, basically, Zhivago. Dad Alan (Andrew Wheeler) is an affable doofus. Their children are 17 and 14 : Brodie (Julie Leung) and Max (Daren Dyhengco). 

Dad whinges about Alex's catering workload, particularly during The Season. How can she possibly pull off her catering contracts and "do Christmas" at home too in her usual perfectionist Martha Stewart style. Fact is the rest of the family isn't so keen on all of Mom's ad hoc theme trappings anyway. 

Add into the mix a Christmas Eve wedding Brodie is bridesmaid for. An old high school heartthrob now a Hollywood star named Reid. Some YouTube shenanigans capturing Alex's catered rap party for and with Reid. Brother Keith estranged from his wife Susan who FaceTimes ad nauseam from Disneyland. He and his daughters will miss all the Zhivago prettery, too. More Alex fret over loss-of-tradition and stress about changing landscapes. Son Max, meanwhile, who after an innocent invite from her Muslim parents, schemes to spend Christmas with his new girlfriend Raji at Whistler. Lie about this and sneak off despite Mom's vehement prohibition? Whatever. Oh. And then there's Clifford, the new dog Dad has rescued : 70 pounds of puppy always at full gallop. 

Themes and values that drive the show : As the above suggests, this is lite fare that nevertheless pokes at serious family issues in today's world. Work life -vs- home life. Communication dodges and misfires. Just precisely where does the truth lie? Loyalties split between friends and family. The weight of traditions -vs- the urges to just let now happen regardless of the calendar nagging at us about The Season.

The fact it is two female playwrights who put the script together is of note. Because whether it's a Mars / Venus dichotomy or just a patriarchal hangover, reality is most men don't bake shortbread, let alone fruit cake. Buy the bird, mastermind the stuffing or even do the gravy. Decide on and decorate the house from the endless boxes of seasonal tackle and chattels that are shunt off to the attic, mercifully, for the other 11 months of the year. A mom's revenge on "Christmas cheer" is pretty well what The Day Before Christmas is all about.

Production & acting pin-spots : A sustained and consistent turn by ACT veteran  Jennifer Clement, no question. She was utterly convincing as the conflicted and demanding and loving and preoccupied Mom. As husband Alan, Andrew Wheeler was engaging in his naive charm. When post-YouTube he flipped into righteous rage mode as the script demanded, the abruptness and seeming finality of his ultimatum came as a surprise. Leung and Dyhengco for their parts were convincing in their sister/brother hissy-fits and teenager Whatever... attitudes. 

Director Chelsea Haberlin provided her team with canny and adept blocking on the stage with its 3-side horseshoe seating. Good staging of the chaos and tumult the unseen Clifford brought to the scene. Once again Drew Facey demonstrates his remarkable talents conceiving and executing dramatic sets (see Brothel #9 November 20 review). A very classy suburban executive home brought to life here. Itai Erdal's lighting sequences were slick & witty, while Matthew MacDonald-Bain's soundscape -- particularly the snare drum / string bass sequence as dramatic tension built -- was compelling. 

Who gonna like : A lot of energy and talent were put into this script by writers Kaser and Kelly. Issues : too much Act I exposition.  Too many coincidences to fuel the plot line. Too much Keith on FaceTime. But as heard from a number of folks at show's end, the Act 2 energy and pointedness and pace made the evening's Christmas biography realistic in spades. Fact is there is no "perfect Christmas". Alex maintains "Spontaneity has to be planned!" Others couldn't disagree more.

I recall the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey addressing the issue of family at Christmastime. One trenchant observation struck me that I now recycle :

"Before you meet your relatives this season, take a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them even if they behave as they have always done in the past. At best you may be surprised to find that they actually are changing, that some of your wishes have come true. At worst you'll feel regrettably detached from your kinfolk as you watch them play out their usual psychoses."

The Kaser/Kelly/Haberlin team serves up a chummy, familiar and at times edgy version of The Season. There is much to relate to here and have a lot of fun with -- as well as much to reflect upon around expectations -- no question. Because without expectations there'd be no Santa Claus.
Particulars :  A new play developed by the Arts Club Theatre Company. Written by Stacey Kaser & Alison Kelly.  On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West 1st Avenue. On thru December 24.,  Schedules & tickets by phone @ 604.687.1644 or via  Run-time 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission.

Production crew :  Director Chelsea Haberlin.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal.  Sound Designer Matthew MacDonald-Bain.  Projection Designer Joel Grinke.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.

Performers :  Jennifer Clement (Alex).  Daren Dyhengco (Max).  Jay Hindle (Keith).  Nicholas Lea (Reid).  Julie Leung (Brodie).  Curtis Tweedie (Dirk).  Andrew Wheeler (Alan).


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