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Unconventional Christmas

By Adam E. Pachter

Three Christmas One-Acts

Directed by Henry Bial

At the Cabot House JCR

Through December 15

Give director Henry Bial credit for not sticking to conventional interpretations of Christmas. His Three Christmas One-Acts analyze the holiday season from three widely divergent perspectives--one uses the figure of Santa Claus to attack the selling of scientific knowledge, another examines the theme of generational rebirth through a sequence of Christmas dinners, and the third employs a Dr. Seuss story to stress that Christmas spirit is more important than gift-getting.

The resulting mixture is not always successful. Given Bial's experimental intent, it is ironic that his more traditional one acts boast the better acting and more inventive staging. But Bial's determination to probe the alternate meanings of the holidays results in a production with an overall effect greater than the sum of its parts.

The first of the one-acts, e.e. cummings' Santa Claus: A Morality, is the weakest of the Christmas offerings. Its attachment to the Santa Claus figure is, at best, intermittent--cummings' play could just as easily have been constructed around another personality of childhood fantasy, like the Easter Bunny.

Like Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo, this nonsensical play derides those who use the idea of "science" for commercial exploitation. Despondent because people no longer accept any gifts, Santa Claus (Joel Rainey) turns to Death (Ian Lithgow) for advice. Death proposes that Santa find another line of work--namely, selling knowledge. He suggests that Claus use the buzzword "scientific" to peddle his non-existent wares. "Why say fantastic when you mean scientific?" Death asks. Soon he has Santa selling stock in a "wheel mine." The plot becomes even more convoluted after this. Death and Santa exchange outfits, and a vengeful mob comes looking for the owner of the "wheel mine."

The atmosphere of this first one-act is depressing, and its moody manner alienated many of the small children in attendance. This is not of itself a flaw--the murky moral conflict and mediocre acting hurt this production more than the play's tone does. Only Lithgow, as the black-clad, cigarette-smoking Death, brings vigor to his character, but his grave voice fits the part more exactly than his mannerisms.

Good things come to those who wait, however, and the second one-act is a decided improvement on the first. In The Long Christmas Dinner, Thorton Wilder returns to Our Town territory as he examines the progression of time through a series of New England Christmas dinners with the Bayard family. While the moral (the more things change, the more they stay the same) is conventional, a number of strong performances and stark though effective staging immediatly command our attention.

Once the audience realizes that the door on stage left represents birth and the one on stage right represents death, the entrance and exit of characters acquires new urgency. Sam's (Anton Quist) departure is particularly effective. After the family has admired his fine soldier's uniform, he remarks, "Well, goodbye," and boldly--one might say blindly--marches through death's door.

The script is at times too obvious, and lines like "It'll all be the same in 100 years" too blatantly draw attention to the cycles of time. But Wilder's play is also filled with more subtle, insightful references to time's passing; the additions to the Bayards' house and the changing names of the family's servants are good examples.

The Long Christmas Dinner boasts several quality performances. Foremost among them are Jodi Kanter's conservative, unintentionally humorous Lucia Bayard and Lithgow's traditional, business-oriented Charles Bayard. Their characters become even more charming as their attitudes become dated. "I hope you didn't waltz, dear," Lucia once declares. And Charles admonishes his son for "making yourself conspicuous at the country club."

Bial finds the right blend of moralizing and merriment in the last one-act, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. Here the various citizen Whos take turns telling the tale, and both Bial and the cast skillfully intersperse the traditional storyline about the primacy of Christmas cheer with some inspired character choices. Lithgow expertly mimics the accent and demeanor of Jimmy Stewart, and Rainey's Robin [Leach] Who provides a humorous urbanity. Kanter's [Nazi] Doktor Who is splendidly drawn. "Und he whipped him und beat him," she exclaims, practically drooling in her excitement over the Grinch's evil escapades. Kudos also to producer Amy Wicklund for inspired costumes--Mark Gragg's tinsel-clad Christmas Tree costume is a delightful example of her skill.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas provides a perfect cap to the evening's entertainment, combining innovation and humor with a healthy little moral. Although Bial's execution is not perfect throughout these three one-acts, one cannot fault his Christmas vision.

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