Friday, December 18, 2009

Sister's Christmas Catechism

People with little or no Catholic school education will have a much easier time getting into 'Sister's Christmas Catechism,' the newest offering at Sacramento's Cosmopolitan Cabaret, than its previous production of 'Sister's Late Night Catechism.'

That first show included many hilarious bits, most of which assumed that the people in the room were familiar with how things were done in Catholic grammar schools back in the day.

'Sister's Christmas Catechism' is the third in a series of very funny shows written by Maripat Donovan, all of which revolve around a no-nonsense nun pressed into teaching the basics of the Catholic faith to adults. This Christmas version, which continues through Jan. 3, includes a living nativity; preparation for this sequence comprises most of the second act, and must be seen to be appreciated.

Sister (Nonie Newton-Breen) plucks various willing - and not entirely willing - souls from the audience for this scene. She then costumes them in makeshift outfits cobbled from donations to the poor.

It should be noted that while almost all theatrical productions caution audiences against the taking of photographs, here everybody is encouraged to take pictures. Be sure to bring your camera; you'll be sorry if you leave it at home, especially if members of your group become part of the living nativity.

On the evening we attended, the ox was played by a well-known Davis police officer, which made things much more fun for us. (Following the show, he told me that he was glad not to have been picked to play the ass.)

The Christmas tableau doesn't merely tell the tale of the birth of Baby Jesus; that would be too ordinary. Instead, Sister has decided to solve a mystery that has long plagued her. This will be a sort of 'CSI: Bethlehem,' she explains, as she attempts to discover who stole the Maji's gold.

She points out that Mary and Joseph surely used up the myrrh and frankincense, but the gold must have been stolen because otherwise Joseph could have paid for a room in the inn, and gotten them out of the stable.

Newton-Breen, who has traveled the country in 'Catechism plays' for the past seven years, is well equipped for this role, having been born into a large Irish-Catholic family in Chicago. Since these plays rely heavily on audience interaction, her improv work - beginning with Chicago's famed Second City Theater - has served her well.

She also won the 2006 Ovation Award for her performance in this particular show.

While she makes an excellent nun, she's far less strict than Maripat Donovan - who starred in 'Sister's Late Night Catechism' - and isn't nearly as insistent as Donovan, at making us respond 'Yes, Sister' to every question. Newton-Breen isn't nearly as scary.

Each performance of 'Sister's Christmas Catechism' includes the assistance of a local church choir. The opening night performance featured the Holy Family Catholic Church in Citrus Heights, one of whose priests also participated in the nativity tableau, and definitely knew how to chew up the scenery!

This show is a lot of fun. If you were put off by the esoteric parts of 'Late Night Catechism,' don't let that leave any second thoughts about attending this one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Second Generation of "Nutcracker" kids (feature article)

When Greg Wershing watched his 12-year-old son Brycen, playing Herr Drosselmeyer in this year's production of the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker,' climb inside the big grandfather clock, he had a flashback to 1985. That's the year the elder Wershing built that clock, and many of the other pieces of 'The Nutcracker' set.

It also struck him that his son Logan, 10, was the third generation of Wershings to be working at the Veterans' Memorial Theater (Greg's mother Susan Wershing worked tech for more than 20 shows, before she moved from Davis), and the second-generation Wershing to be involved with Davis' holiday tradition.

Both sons Brycen and Logan have been involved with 'The Nutcracker' for years. First, they were performers, and then Logan decided to follow in his father's footsteps and now works on the tech crew.

By 1985, a small group of young people - Chris Wong, Jon Lee, Phil Sequeira, Ned and Jeri Sykes, Derrick Wydick and Wershing, some of whom had come through the performing ranks of the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker' - had grown up and graduated to the tech crew. They had new ideas and were able to see many of them become reality.

'We built a Christmas tree that grows, an oversized fireplace, a big chair, and big and small grandfather clocks,' Wershing remembers. 'I built an oversized fireplace based on an existing fireplace prop and a giant chair based on a regular chair we acquired.'

Nearly 25 years later, most of those pieces have been replaced, but some still remain. Some of the adults who were once young people are still involved with the show, now watching their own children performing.

'I'm one of the bonafide dinosaurs of the show,' laughs Wydick, who, other than a couple of years when he and wife Laura lived in Fremont, has worked on every show since 1978, when he played Fritz.

'When I was 25, I had no idea this would happen,' says city of Davis Public Relations Manager Bob Bowen, who dreamed up the idea of the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker' and directed it for 10 years. 'I just thought we'd put on a show and 75 people showed up, put on burlap tunics and (we had) cardboard for sets. It's grown from there.'

The Bowen family is the obvious first instance of 'generational involvement.' Bob's wife Kate directed the show for three years. Three of his four children have been involved. Stacey Bowen was a bear, pennywhistle, treat (California raisin and Hershey kiss), Chinese dancer and snowflake. She was a leader for the little party guests, mice and bakers and also did sound for a couple of years and helped out backstage.

Tyler Bowen was the Mouse King, Fritz, a soldier and a gnome. He also worked on the sound and stage crew.

Heather Bowen was a pennywhistle, dancing bear, snowflake and treat. She was a leader for the snowflakes, leads and gumdrops and did stage crew. (Heather now has two children, but does not live in Davis. However, she is moving back to the area and who knows? Perhaps her children will start a third generation of 'Nutcracker' kids!)

Abby Verosub (now Abira Laurie) was a Chinese dancer in her one performance with the show, but she, too, graduated to the tech crew, though her brothers performed for several years. Laurie has returned to Davis after an absence of 23 years and is looking forward to watching her daughter perform in 'The Nutcracker.'

'She's going to be a clown,' Laurie says. 'In my day, we called them the 'rubber chicken brigade.' She's excited.'

Kelly Carlson's sister and brothers danced in 'The Nutcracker' 20 years ago, this year her three children - Kasey, Carter and Grace - will be on the stage.

Marianne Moore coordinated the show for many years as a city of Davis staff member, her younger sister performed, and now her own daughters, Samantha and Ella, are in it.

Wydick began taking daughter Katie to rehearsals when she was 15 months old.

'She was a squirmy little baby, but when the dancing started she would stop moving and focus her eyes on the stage and not move for 45 minutes,' he says.

Wydick brought her every year and the little girl desperately wanted to get on the stage. Now she's finally old enough and will be a snowflake in this year's production. Her plan is to be a flower when she becomes old enough.

Many Davis residents say the 'Davis Children's Nutcracker' is one of the gems of life in this community. It has become a Christmas tradition for many families.

'I'm glad it has been such a big part of my life,' Wershing says. 'I'm glad my kids have the opportunity to experience it before it's gone for good.'

'This has become a crazy institution that is part of growing up in Davis,' Bob Bowen says, laughing. 'It has become a shared experience between parents who once performed in the show and kids who are in it now.

'Maybe that's my enduring legacy,' he adds. 'That's pretty cool.'

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Santaland Diaries

At a time of the year when the world seems full of sugarplum fairies, Tiny Tim, sappy TV Christmas shows and those ubiquitous ho-ho-hos, it's refreshing to stumble on a holiday program that shows the dark side of Christmas.

The Capital Stage production of 'The Santaland Diaries,' directed by Janice Stevens, is a one-act satire written by National Public Radio storyteller David Sedaris, and adapted by Joe Mantello (of 'Love! Valor! Compassion!'). This show is wickedly funny and guaranteed not to send you from the building whistling 'Jingle Bells,' but you may - somewhere - find the true meaning of Christmas.

Whether you like it or not.

David, played by Gary Alan Wright, is an aspiring actor who has moved to New York and expects to be working on 'One Life to Live' within weeks. He fantasizes about his introduction to the cast, and practices acting humble when told he has to get used to being the center of attention.

Instead, rejected by the soap opera and desperate for money - and not wanting to stand on the sidewalks, handing out leaflets while dressed as a taco or a digital camera - he answers an ad to be a full-time elf at Macy's Santaland.

The verbal diary follows David through his interview and hiring, his training - during which he is given a copy of 'The Elfin Guide' - and his work in Santa's House, as the elf 'Crumpet.' We learn about motivational cheers - 'Come on you elves, feel good about yourselves!' - and that 'it hurts the mouth to talk with such merriment.'

We get a tour of Santa's Village, including its 'vomit corner,' and learn about high-tech parents who force their kids to sit on Santa's lap to be photographed, even if the tots are screaming in fright. (Anyone who ever has stood in line to see Santa, whether as a parent or as a child, will find someone with whom they can identify here.)

'It's not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything, but the parents' idea of a world they cannot make work for them.'

Sedaris made his comic debut with 'The Santaland Diaries' on National Public Radio, and was named humorist of the year in 2001 by Time Magazine. Wright is perfectly suited to bring Sedaris' words to the local stage. He's a man of many talents and many faces, and has a natural boyish charm that endears him to the audience. He can be at once sardonic, bitter and even cute.

Gail Russell has designed a great elf costume for Wright.

'I wear red and white striped tights, a yellow turtleneck, a forest-green velvet smock, and a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles,' he explains. 'This is my work uniform.'

Jonathan Williams' set is reminiscent of a child's pop-up book, beginning in a very spare, colorless office. The walls open later to the wonders of Santaland, with lights encircling all the posts of the theater itself, putting the entire audience in Santaland as well.

This isn't a show for tiny tots. But for a wonderfully adult, nonsaccharine Christmas show to take your mind off the sugarplums dancing in your head, 'The Santaland Diaries' is just the thing.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' has the feel of something you'd expect to see in the local school multipurpose room, rather than the Woodland Opera House, and - at only 90 minutes long, including a 15 minute intermission - that may reflect its anticipated audience.

But thanks to the deft hand of director Jeff Kean and a talented cast, the show is a fun addition to the annual line-up of holiday entertainment.

The scene is set by young Beth Bradley (Amy Miles), as she describes the new family in town: 'The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars - even the girls - and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse,'

The six Herdman kids are the school bullies. They beat up kids before school and steal their lunches, or take their money. Everybody is afraid of them.

The young actors playing the Herdmans are just great. Horace Gonzalez is appropriately sullen as the oldest son, Ralph. Elisa Marks is the bleached-blond Imogene, who has a surprising reaction at an emotional moment. Sam Kyser is Claude, and William Black is Ollie; Ani Carrera steals every scene as the youngest, Gladys, who has the greatest defiant pout you'd ever want to see.

The Herdmans decide to go to church because they hear that snacks are served at Sunday School. And then they discover the annual Christmas pageant.

Because of an injury, the longtime director, Mrs. Armstrong (Armida Wahl), is unable to direct the play. The task falls to Beth's mother, Grace Bradley (Julie Greene), with the reluctant assistance of her husband, Bob (Charley Cross), who really only wants to stay home in his bathrobe and watch TV.

Grace quickly discovers that she may be in over her head, although she's determined to make this the best Christmas pageant ever.

Imogene beats out Alice Wendleken (Ashley Vall) for the role of Mary, the role Alice usually plays. Vall is wonderfully whiny and petulant.

Nobody wants to be an angel because Gladys bites people, and thinks the proper salutation for the shepherds is 'Shazam!' Nobody else wants to be around her.

The predictable ending is strongly foreshadowed when Grace discovers that the Herdmans haven't heard the Christmas story, and so reads it for them out of her Bible.

We never see any actual rehearsal taking place for the pageant, although chaos and mayhem fills the stage, and the dress rehearsal never happens because nobody seems to have any costumes.

Despite all this, somehow things come together for a surprisingly poignant finale. The gifts of the Maji may bring a tear to the most cynical of hearts.

'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' is based on a 1972 book by Barbara Robinson, which was adapted into a television movie in 1983. The infamous Herdmans go on to appear in two subsequent books by Robinson.

Kean's set design is lovely, bathing the entire theater in lights, and including some beautiful stained glass window effects.

Laurie Everly-Klassen costumes includes an angel who wears a little ducky robe 'because her mother was out of white sheets,' and Gladys' grimy robe is held together by a man's tie.

Children will love this show, and it's short enough - and active enough - to hold the attention of even the youngest theatergoers.