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Yule Be Sorry 

A shimmering play about the darkness of the past

Wednesday, Jun 7 2006
Mark Twain is often quoted as having said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Although the author probably never uttered these words, the sentiment holds true. Yet even taking into account the eccentricities of our local climate and the wildly premature hawking of tinsel and fake fir trees in department stores around town, June does seem like a strange month in which to stage a play about Christmas. Nevertheless, that's how Paula Vogel would have it. In the script notes for her 2003 drama, The Long Christmas Ride Home, the playwright specifies that "this play be produced in January, in October — any month except December."

Outwardly, this seems like an odd request, for the play shimmers with the sort of magic commonly associated with pristine white Christmases of yore. The narrative structure evokes the spirit of favorite yuletide stories like Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The play also calls for tinkling bells, carols, and a cast of puppet children. In one of this production's most breathtaking moments, the cast members and marionettes dance around the stage to the tune of the "Carol of the Bells"; at another point, their whirling is accompanied by silky, butterfly-esque kimono- and lantern-shaped puppets like something out of a Chagall canvas. The effect, in both instances, is hypnotic, as if you're looking into a snow globe.

But despite all the talk about snow, presents, and cranberry sauce, this seemingly innocent tale about one American family's drive in their Sunday best to celebrate the festive season with Granny and Gramps reveals itself to have little in common with 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and its ilk. Don't expect to hear Santa coming down the chimney with a cheery "Ho, ho, ho!" Expect, instead, a cruel snicker.

Vogel's presentation of a middle-class suburban Yule set in Eisenhower's America couldn't be more satirical. The three children (Rebecca, the bossy firstborn; Stephen, the quiet, feminine middle child; and daddy's girl, Claire — all personified by puppets in the first half of the play) squabble in the back seat, alternately feeling sick, kicking each other, and dreaming about opening presents. Meanwhile, their parents (played by human actors) sit po-faced in the front, barely managing to disguise mutual feelings of remorse and disgust. At the grandparents' house, the mood becomes grimmer than the Grinch's plot: The adults get drunk, the kids fight, and the family ends up leaving early. The second half spirals ahead to a Christmas 20 years after the initial family outing. The playful puppets have grown up and hardened into human form. Stephen is now dead, and his sisters, both contemplating an appointment with the Grim Reaper themselves, try to cope with their feelings of loneliness and loss. Ah, happy holidays.

The thrill of Vogel's Ride lies in the tension between two very different emotional states. Drawing inspiration from the Japanese artistic traditions of Noh and Kabuki theater, Bunraku puppet plays, shamisen and koto music, and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the playwright creates a pair of contrasting landscapes: that of the "floating world" — an ethereal plane symbolized by the perfection of Ukiyo-e art, with its idealized images of human pleasures and nature's bounty — and that of the "sorrowful world," life's prosaic reality. (Ang Lee achieves something similar, I think, in his 1997 movie The Ice Storm, in the contrast between the sublime beauty of the wintry scenery and the gutter-mouthed goings-on indoors.) As much as the writer and her collaborators in the Magic Theatre's mesmerizing production fill the air with the sensation of breathless expectation, the play also exerts a relentless downward pull, miring us in the petty stresses and hardships of everyday existence. As a result, watching Ride is a charged experience: One minute, we feel like children waking up on Christmas morning, and the next, we're being dragged behind the family's car, nose-ploughing for miles through ice-cold slush.

All of this creates a feeling of profound alienation in the viewer. Director/puppeteer Basil Twist — an Obie Award-winning puppet master who collaborated with Vogel on the original production of Ride at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, as well as subsequent incarnations in New York and New Haven (and who carries the more dubious distinction of serving as underwater puppetry consultant on the third Harry Potter film) — exploits this sensation to the fullest. From the snow-pale faces of the puppets (which look all the more ghostly under Kate Boyd's chilling lights) to the unnervingly lifelike interactions between these mannequin children and their flesh-and-blood parents (thanks to skillful puppeteering by actors Nick Sholley, Lisa Anne Porter, Jennifer Clare, and members of the Lunatique Fantastique ensemble, not to mention equally involving turns from Julia Brothers and Steve Irish as Mum and Dad) to the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western traditions, Twist pulls all the strings at his disposal to create an experience that feels at once deeply tied to Christmas rituals and utterly distant from them.

It is precisely out of that desire for distance that Vogel asks that the play be performed outside the season of goodwill. As in her earlier works, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive and Baltimore Waltz — the latter of which she penned (as she did Ride) in response to the death of her brother Carl from AIDS — Ride aims for "an out-of-body experience," as the author once expressed it in an interview. "One of the things I am trying to do is to look at the things that hurt us socially, communally, collectively in such a way that we can look at the darkness without being abused in the process," Vogel said in the same interview. "That's why I want the distance, I don't want it done at Christmas time."

The play's alienation may not always achieve the desired effect. Heavy-handed monologue-writing in the middle section undermines the drama's rhythm and subtlety, and Twist's decision to draft a nonactor, Jess Curtis, in several roles (including a Universalist Unitarian church minister and both grandparents) backfires. Though a gifted dancer, Curtis' acting wants for precision and presence, and ultimately disrupts the communal experience. Yet it hardly matters, for this play presents an adult's view of childhood (as glimpsed through the frequently rose-tinted prism of Christmas) that's disarming, regardless of the season in which it's performed.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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