Saturday, November 26, 2016

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Burning Away Cliches: 'A Very Phoenix Xmas 11' hits the stage

Tilting toward seasonal  harmony, a striking setting of "Carol of the Bells."
I used to think a certain lively Christmas carol was addressed to "merry gentlemen," but that was before I became versed in the subtleties of punctuation. My father, a church choir director, first pointed out to me that the title (and first line) runs, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and the conscientious singer should insert the slightest of pauses after "merry."

A minor "aha" moment — yet not irrelevant when considering Phoenix Theatre's latest version of its popular "Very Phoenix Xmas" series, a seasonal variety show stitching together submitted playlets with cleverly produced songs and commentary.

You see, that English carol pegs the wish that the gentlemen be merry on the grace of God in arranging for the birth of the Savior on the day we celebrate as Christmas. They are not merry to begin with.

In the broader culture of today, more receptive to other religious orientations and on the whole determinedly secular, the gentlemen (where are the ladies, one wonders?) no longer enjoy the narrow point of rest that "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" holds out to them. We're all on our own when it comes to merriment.

That heavy burden makes the carol's "tidings of comfort and joy" hard to identify and internalize now, especially in light of election results that producing director Bryan Fonseca boldly addresses in the program's printed insert. The production doesn't waste time on hand-wringing, however. "A Very Phoenix Xmas 11" gathers in the holiday season's nagging lack of comfort and joy while vowing successfully "to respect and celebrate this special time of year," in Fonseca's words.

Seen on opening night Friday, the show delivers across the emotional spectrum. It is both humane and caustic, open-hearted and cryptic, boisterous and reflective. The range is tied together with continuity provided by Fonseca and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan and voiced by cast member Jay Hemphill, ringing the changes on the stereotypical cowboy he plays in the first dramatic scene as he expounds on peculiar Christmas customs around the world.
Walt Disney (left) visits  his "Small World" singers, awaiting the next boat.

The international perspective is launched by Mark Harvey Levine's spoof of the dancing dolls in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom. Precisely costumed and moving with mechanized zest, a sextet of national stereotypes gripes, banters or shrugs about the work of delivering "It's a Small World" every time a boat approaches. The routine of mindless work for the sake of ensuring others' kitsch-laden happiness is ripe for satire; it's a tradition going back to S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy," a 1935 parody of the agitprop theater of Clifford Odets. Levine is a proven "Phoenix Xmas" champion of poking fun at the season; last year's "Oh Tannenbaum" was a highlight of that show.

A feast of contentiousness: Celebrating the holiday in the Age of Trump.
The cast brings such a variety of personality and poise to the sketches and songs. The dancing styles stipulated by Mariel Greenlee's spirited choreography are well-met challenges. With mixed results, the actors are called upon to mimic a host of accents, which it would be cumbersome to enumerate here. Besides Hemphill, this Ocean's 11 of a show heists the audience's holiday reserve immediately: Jean Childers-Arnold, Paeton Chavis, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Devan Mathias, and Keith Potts.

On a dark stage, in ovoid costumes outlined by strings of lights, Heiden, Hemphill, and Chavis get things started dancing with designed clumsiness to "Carol of the Bells," ending with the diminutive Chavis getting bumped to the floor. It's a sign of the undercurrent of untoward outcomes built into the show. There will be constant struggles to find comfort and joy, from the jerrybuilt Nativity scene assembled across sectarian lines in devastated Homs, Syria (by Kenyon Brown) to the unanticipated complications of air travel in "Home for Christmas" (by Andrew Black).

These are among several excursions into political matters rubbing up against the vaunted Christmas spirit. Politics having become so much about status and identity, the levels of preference airlines build into their handling of passengers and the attractions of personal "re-branding" are neatly addressed in Black's piece.

The audience-participation gimmick of Mad Libs works well in Lizz Leiser's "Holiday Dinner." Opposing viewpoints that emerge in family gatherings (already sharpened by tense Thanksgiving feasts) are mocked by inserting the audience's submitted nouns, adjectives, and verbs into scripted dialogue so as to obliterate sociability in a food fight of name-calling.

The insistence of often self-marginalized groups upon "safe spaces" forces rewritten "Progressive Christmas Carols" (PAINT, aka Jon Cozart) to skirt offensiveness by such awkward detours as that suggested by this show's subtitle, "I'm Dreaming of an Intersectionally Thoughtful Multicultural Winter Holiday."

The welter of cultural input during the season gets a somewhat confusing send-up of tour-guide narrative, pagan investment, and visitor thrill-seeking in the first-act finale, Jean Childers-Arnold's "Stonehenge Midwinter." Sometimes the season's disturbances take the form of illness, setting aside culture and politics. In "Phoenix Xmas 11," this varies from a moving narrative poem by Lauren Briggeman, recited by Childers-Arnold with informal brilliance, to Steve Korber's "World's Worst Christmas," in which Potts and Mathias play superbly two pharmacy customers on Christmas Eve who fall into a kind of rock-paper-scissors game of holiday self-pity.

The set by Jeffery Martin and Bernie Killian has a carefully assembled junkyard ambiance — with ladders, discarded tires, I-beams and other urban flotsam and jetsam whose purpose becomes clear in the Homs sketch. Projections on the area's few flat surfaces enliven several episodes, especially a devastating vocal-ensemble setting of a Verdi prayer aria and a mordantly funny Dutch solo song (with translation and film clips).

This is a brave show. There's enough jolliness in it to satisfy those who insist on comfort and joy. But thinking about that set brings to mind the  difficult solace that William Butler Yeats sought in "The Circus Animals' Desertion." The Phoenix casts a jaundiced eye at the holiday season's "circus animals," its tinselly images and confections.

"A Very Phoenix Xmas 11" finds plenty still to celebrate. Contrary to the Magic Kingdom's recorded reminder, it does not remain seated or keep its hands inside the boat, which is on a dark ride in more than one sense. The ladders of war-wrought Homs have nothing to ascend to. And yet, with Yeats, "now that my ladder's gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Not your usual cup of Christmas cheer, is it? But, as in Yeats' poem, the heart has the final word. Let nothing you dismay.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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