Christmas Special

What is it about the holidays that lends so easily to excess? With marathons of Christmas movies on television and Christmas music dominating radio stations, it is only fitting that experimental theater have its own version of a holiday-themed marathon. The Brick Theater, with a history of producing innovative festivals, makes a fitting home for such a production. Anyone looking for a crash introduction to talented writers and directors of contemporary downtown theater would do well to check out The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee: Second Coming. The excess of the cheekily-titled marathon, which features twelve one-acts divided into two programs (the “MARYS” and the “JOSEPHS”, as when The Brick produced a similar program in 2005) comes from an amalgamation of different styles and themes. In a shift away from the material excesses that often accompany the holidays, the emphasis of these barebones plays is squarely on the texts; most design elements go uncredited in the program.

When the plays do use strong design choices, it is usually to good effect, as in Robert Saietta’s Uncomplicated, the first play of the JOSEPH program (9pm Thursdays and Saturdays, 7pm Fridays), which takes place in the home of Wendy, whose living room is as full of clutter as her life is of complication. Under the tight direction of Buddy Peoples, Uncomplicated opens to Wendy’s ex-boyfriend Peter (Peter Lettre) sneaking in to deliver her a Christmas present. Her new girlfriend Tink calls him “a pedantic windbag,” a description Lettre takes to heart in his portrayal of Peter, while also lending him a drunken desperation that makes clear what Wendy may have once seen in him. Even Tink, played with confident pluck by Jessica Hedrick, senses that there is more to him than his jealous stalker tendencies. At the center point of the triangle, Alana Jackler successfully creates a character not frequently seen in popular media: a smart woman who is both likable and stable while leaving open the possibility that she struggles with her sexuality.

From there, the JOSEPH program makes a leap into absurdism that continues – and develops – over the course of the evening. The whimsy begins with Mack Schloff’s The Revellers, a charmingly quirky riff on how a couple’s energy and heat affects its compatibility. Key (Brick Associate Artistic Director Jeff Lewonczyk, who also directs) suspects his girlfriend Con (Brick Associate Artistic Director Hope Cartelli) of harboring a secret crush on Ed, a fellow guest at their holiday party. She admits that he's right: she keeps imagining their names together at the top of an envelope.

The Revellers continues in brief sections over the course of the program that moves quickly enough to keep the gimmick from growing stale while also creating the rhythms of the endless string of holiday parties that the characters attend: “It’s more than just a circuit,” complains Key of the Christmas party rounds, “It’s practically a grid!” When the story of Key and Con concludes, it does so with the best placed light cue of the marathon.

Eric Bland’s the aptly titled Mother Mary Come to Me, the third play of the program, poses unspoken questions concerning the importance of Mary’s virginity. Directed by Scott Eckert, the mixed-media piece provides welcome variation in the marathon’s performance style. A newly widowed father to Baby Jesus, Joseph’s anachronistic courtship of Mary – he meets her jogging in Prospect Park – is projected onscreen, while their real-life counterparts wait onstage, effectively dwarfed by their larger than life images.

The sketch-comedy style of the video, which is captioned with Mary’s self-affirming narration, contrasts with the characters' quiet onstage presence. With Michael Cera-esque awkwardness, Brian Barrett’s Joseph makes uncomfortable attempts at foreplay and talks about “real sex” while Siobhan Doherty’s clear-eyed Mary worries about Jesus, asleep in the next room.

The following one-act, And the Spirit of Christmas Passed, takes contemporary controversial issues of global warming and military families of perpetually absent servicemen, and draws them out to extremes. Set in a climate-changed future on Christmas Eve, the play features a talented cast (Nancy Lee Russell, Rufus L. Tureem, and Meghan V, Tusing) that commits admirably to bizarre circumstances not fully elucidated by David Barth’s direction of Jakob Holder’s ambling script.

The following play is among the more imaginatively absurd of the marathon. Trayf, written by Matthew Freeman and directed by Kyle Ancowitz, features what perhaps no play has before: a drunken, depressed rabbi relaying the story of Hanukah to a gigantic lobster bent on a conversion to Judaism. The incessantly cheery lobster (Mathew Trumbull) seated beside a disgruntled, disheveled rabbi (David DelGrosso) makes for an entertaining premise that wears thin by the time lobster Jim lights the Hanukah menorah and ends the play.

The JOSEPH program concludes with the marathon’s most stylized play. Performed largely in song, Sincerely, Raven Harte, by Emily Conbere with music by Michael Sendrow, depicts a man with a troubled family life attempting to write a Christmas newsletter. A chorus of masked, Christmas sweater-clad women (Bekah Coulter, Nicole Stefonek, and Lisa Zapol) create a rich balance of comedic and creepy which, under the direction of Dominic D’Andrea, pervades much of the piece. The effect is at once disturbing and uplifting, an impressive achievement and a refreshingly complex note on which to end the JOSEPH plays.

The MARY program (7pm Thursdays and Saturdays, 9pm Fridays), with more diverse styles of performance, doesn’t build toward a climactic absurdist point as do the JOSEPH plays, rather, the MARY evening provides a smattering of performance styles on a variety of holiday themes. On opening night, a stalled MTA train prevented the presentation of one of the plays (Carolyn Raship’s A Bender Family Christmas, directed by Daniel McKleinfeld), and likely threw off the balance of the evening; it’s clear that curators Lewonczyk and Michael Gardner, Artistic Director of the Brick, have put a lot of thought into the running order of the plays.

The MARY plays open with Jason Craig’s The Baby Jesus Conversation, which Gardner directs. Two young men in jeans, sneakers and sweaters (Tom Lipinsky and Randall Middleton) spend the short play earnestly exchanging their wacky ideas and suspect reminisces about the nature of the Christ child. The strange, energetic chat from otherwise normal-seeming young men sets an appropriate tone for the evening.

Boyish enthusiasm continues in Qui Nguyen Action Jesus, which features apostles Judas and Peter (Gregg Mozgala and Chris Smith) plotting a second demise of Jesus (a cartwheeling Jason Liebman). With pop-cultural references ranging from Superman to the Wizard of Oz, Action Jesus is the Christ story as influenced by tough guy action flicks. Such a premise has the potential to come across as awkward sketch comedy, but director Michael Lew understands exactly what Nguyen is getting at, and expertly paces the production, eliciting performances from the actors that are both vengeful and goofy.

From there, the program takes a softer turn with Jason Grote’s A Christmas Carol, directed by Shannon Sindelar. The solo performance piece has a senile Scrooge recount the events from the evening of Dickens’ story, expertly delivered with subtle desperation and longing by Ralph Pochoda. The production does more than use a narrator suffering from dementia to prompt audiences to question the validity of the Christmas classic. The play narrows the focus of A Christmas Carol in order to pose quiet, pointed questions about the story’s use of capitalism. It’s a welcome thought piece amidst the high energy, zany program.

A Christmas Carol is followed by Marc Spitz’s Marshmallow World, which brings a literal return to the craziness. Set in a support group, the play features a collection of colorful oddballs all suffering from “sonic” addiction. Victor (Brick Technical Director Ian Hill, who also directs, in addition to serving as marathon light designer and tech director) is among the group’s more senior members and seems strangely sweet given his criminal record, substance abuse, and obsession with NPR’s Terry Gross. Meanwhile, Angel (Alyssa Simon) yearns for a better sense of aesthetics as she tries to move beyond her love of bad music at intimate moments, while Ray (Aaron Baker) fears a particular infamous string of notes. All three deliver comedic performances that embrace their characters’ quirks while resisting the urge to play them as simply insane.

From the beginning, however, audience attention is drawn to Boris (Jason Liebman), who sits alone in a corner hiding in a black hoodie and looking as though he wants to disappear. Fortunately, he instead reveals why he has come: he’s a religious Jew obsessed with Christmas music. As Boris, Liebman is at once deeply distraught and charmingly amusing. Elsewhere in the program, Liebman is engaging as anachronistic Biblical thugs, and it’s fun to see him succeed here at something different.

The MARY program closes with Eric Sanders’ Hollow Hallow, a dark play set on a U.S. military base in Iraq on Christmas Eve. Directed by Jake Witlen, Hollow Hallow utilizes a neat bit of audience interaction that, as this reviewer can personally testify, raises interesting questions about boundaries, power, and empathy. Yet the American soldiers (Alec Beard, Gavin Star Kendall, and Joyce Miller) fail to exude the disciplined authority that one might expect of them. They deliver committed performances that make their characters seem more like cruel kids stabbing at power than like trained members of the U.S. military. That may be part of the point, but the production would be stronger if it showed how the characters’ military identities relate to their acts of unbridled fury.

After moments of terror, Hollow Hallow ends on a startlingly warm note that effectively emphasizes the discontinuities of celebrating a cheerful holiday season during wartime. It’s a surprising ending to both the play and the program as whole and it works. With its twelve different plays, such juxtapositions are part of the delight of The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee. Anyone seeking an unconventional take on the holiday marathon will not be disappointed.

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