Tuesday 21 November 2017

 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)

Editor's note : Due to the vagaries of the hectic Christmas season, BLR will not be able to view the second mounting of The Day Before Christmas that is a reprise of its successful premiere in 2016. What follows in lieu is a refreshed redux of last year's review. Most of the players are back for another go, though the actors in the lead parts have changed. 

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 Instagram lens. 

Mom Alex (Jennifer Copping) does a wee double take over her gift from hubby Alan (Paul Herbert) in this reprise for 2017 of The Day Before Christmas that premiered one year ago.
Photo credit: David Cooper
WYSIWYG : Kaser & Kelly have collaborated previously. Conversations With My Mother played at the Gateway three 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 my grandmother 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 Copping) 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 (Paul Herbert) is an affable doofus. Their children are 17 and 14 : Brodie (Julie Leung) and Max (Daren Dyhengco). 

School chums Brodie (Julie Leung) and Dirk (Curtis Tweedie) share a moment's hug during all the seasonal silliness and shenanigans playing out before them. Not to mention a smacker laid on St. C. 
Photo credit : David Cooper
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 and ever-changing Christmas themes anyway. 

Add into the mix : a Christmas Eve wedding Brodie is bridesmaid for. Plus an old high school heartthrob now a Hollywood star named Reid. Oh. And some YouTube shenanigans that capture Alex's catered rap-party for and with Reid thrown into the mix. 

Meanwhile brother Keith (Jay Hindle) is estranged from his wife Susan and FaceTimes ad nauseam from Disneyland. He and his daughters will therefore miss all the seasonal Zhivago scenery, too. More Alex fret over loss-of-tradition and stress about changing landscapes that Keith just adds to by being a.w.o.l. in Anaheim. 

Son Max, meanwhile, has a new girlfriend named Raji he's hot to see. Max gets an invite from her Muslim parents to join them at Whistler and he schemes how to spend Christmas there instead of at home. Lie about this and sneak off despite Mom's vehement prohibition? Yipes! 

Oh. Almost forgot. About Clifford. He's the new rescue dog Dad has unilaterally interjected into the family's chaotic home : 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. Nor buy the bird, mastermind the stuffing or do the all-important gravy. Even reluctant to help 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. So it's appropriate that it is Mom who takes revenge on "Christmas cheer" in this show.

Production highlights : Director Chelsea Haberlin provides 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. 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. 

Acting pin-spots : The character of Alex is a wholly conflicted and demanding and loving and preoccupied Mom. The husband Alan calls for an engaging naive charm. There is a post-YouTube righteous rage riff the script demands that produces an abruptness and seeming finality to Alan's ultimatum. The doofus has hot buttons after all. Leung and Dyhengco for their parts were convincing in their sister/brother hissy-fits and teenager Whatever... attitudes a year back -- no doubt they've further finessed their roles this time out. 

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 last year, 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. (See Director Haberlin's cut at the season in Addendum.)

I recall the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey addressing the issue of family at Christmastime a few years back. One trenchant observation struck me that I now re-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 would, of course, be no Santa Claus.

Particulars :  Second straight season for a play developed by the Arts Club Theatre Company in 2016. 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 artsclub.com.  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.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.  Rehearsal Assistant Stage Manager Peter Jotkus.

Performers :  Jennifer Copping (Alex).  Daren Dyhengco (Max).  Paul Herbert (Alan). Jay Hindle (Keith).  Nicholas Lea (Reid).  Julie Leung (Brodie).  Curtis Tweedie (Dirk). 

Addendum :  The 2017 Director's Notes by Chelsea Haberlin from the show's program bulletin:

People seem to fall into two camps when it comes the holiday season. They either love it or loathe it : the family gatherings, gifts, decorations, traditions, and the food, food, food! If you are on the receiving end of all of this, then awesome. But if you are the one who takes on the responsibility of making it all come together, it can be a real struggle. There's just so much pressure to "get it right", to please those around you, and make special memories.

I fall on the side of loving Christmas. I think one of the main reasons I love it is because Christmas in my family has remained smooch the same, year after year, for the 33 years I've been alive. There is something about the predictability that I find soothing. This is because I am lucky enough to have a family that doesn't take material possessions and "the way things should be" all that seriously. We put ugly cardboard decorations that I made when I was there on our tree, and not a year has gone by that I haven't received dental floss in my stocking. These memories are imperfect, but they belong to us. And "us" is what really matters this time of year. Not perfection, because that's not actually a thing that exists.

Whatever you do to celebrate the holiday, whoever you spend it with, and wherever you are, I hope that you find the ones you love this year and that you remember that more than gifts, more than the tree, even more than the glorious food, what matters most are the people around us and the time we spend together.

A big thank you to the Arts Club for the opportunity.

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