Friday, December 6, 2013

Cue the angels: Phoenix Theatre puts itself behind the Xmas '8' ball

Several outstanding sketches and some well-staged borrowed songs combine to make "A Very Phoenix Xmas 8: Angels We Have Heard While High" a worthy extension of the Phoenix Theatre's traditional variety show.

Chiefly a showcase for playlets by writers from around the country, "A Very Phoenix Xmas" is the company's annual staged gathering of stocking-stuffers, directed by Bryan Fonseca and hung by the chimney with lots of care from the production team. The set was a marvel, flexibly lit to suit each segment: Great, suspended ornament globes (one of which doubled as an image screen) were counterpointed against diagonal candy-cane lines and, to the rear, a giant beribboned gift box.

Tom Horan's credit as curator speaks to what must have been much head-scratching work winnowing submissions to get the bits that would fit comfortably into the same show and make a modicum of sense in two acts. His glory is a behind-the-scenes matter, though: As contributor of sprightly dialogue for Scot Greenwell and Ryan O'Shea, cast members who introduce each act, Horan relies on forced humor, coarsely expressed, that stands a little too deeply in the shadow of the sketches and songs.

Despite the punning title, this is not a Cheech & Chong Christmas, though Duncan Pflaster's "Bring Me Flesh and Bring Me Wine" bears signs of a bad trip generated by some of the last words in Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Eric J. Olson portrays a conflicted adult Tiny Tim, granted immortality of the love-in-vein kind until he's inadvertently taken out of his deathless misery by a homeless woman, spunkily played by Lynn Wilhite.

As it unfolded Thursday night, "Bring Me Flesh and Bring Me Wine" kept its fantastic glow warm. Pflaster's caprice struck home, thanks to a message that the passing pleasures of the Christmas season, if nurtured by real love, are worth treasuring so much more than rootless wealth and no hope of closure.

Daughter Lynn Wilhite's life is subject to scientific whims of dad Paul Hansen.
In the second half, the greatest outburst of fantasy took a narrower parodistic form. "The Most Dangerous Cat in the World" is a send-up of the cheesy late-night movies that are often a part of lazy holiday TV viewing. In this piece, an exuberant style carried W.M. Akers' manic sci-fi spoof. Paul Hansen is a doting father using his mad-scientist skill to keep his daughter (Wilhite) away from the scoring intentions of her football-hero boyfriend (Olson) by blending him monstrously with the family cat. The silliness of this transformation, bodied forth in Olson's costume (Ashley Kiefer again deserves kudos for her "Very Phoenix Xmas" designs), helped set aside the skit's seasonal impertinence.

More central, with a touch of sentimentality, was Sarah Saltwick's "Christmas Isn't Math."  In this playlet, the widespread regard for the family pet isn't given a monstrous spin, but something closer to the heart than the funnybone. Simply put, a carelessly lost dog (played by Hilary Abigana) becomes a symbol of what even Santa Claus may sometimes have to sacrifice to keep someone happy.

As for the songs, Greenwell and O'Shea made merry with Garfunkel and Oates' "Present Face," a stylish duet matched by a Greenwell and Hansen excursion through Stephen Colbert's "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?"

The latter is a lighthearted first-act interlude between two theologically challenging sketches on faith and miracles. A. Scott Freeman's "Mary's Christmas Story"  recounts  the Annunciation at a family dinner, in which some of the playwright's attempt at inoffensive Jewish caricature may have been missed Thursday. The explosive revelation needed to come across as a Magnficatastrophe, in which smarty-pants younger brother's smutty interpretation of the angel's visit to his sister is at least as plausible as Mary's story itself. The demands that faith makes on common sense get a more dramatically satisfying exposition in "The Light," an interpretation by Mark Harvey Levine of the Hanukkah story with a provocative contrast between the patient Adam (Olson) and the restless Moishe (Hansen), both charged with watching the flame of alamp that miraculously stays lit.

The Fourth Wall added a fourth dimension to "Xmas 8."
More integral use is made of the Fourth Wall —  Abigana, Greg Jukes and C. Neil Parsons — this year than in their Phoenix debut in 2012. Members of this "hybrid arts" trio of actors-dancers-musicians get extensive outings as actors in the new show, in addition to being able to display their clever blends of movement and music in Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy." Blithely coordinated choreography and musical savoir faire always amaze whenever this threesome takes the stage; the addition of the full ensemble during "Linus and Lucy" (one of Mariel Greenlee's graceful, idiomatic choreographic touches) made for a cheery finale.

Hang those angels on the highest bough, revelers, and make your irreverent way to the Phoenix before Dec. 22.