If you want to take a chance on something different this holiday season, here are a handful of options.
Of the following five holiday-themed theater productions on Bay Area stages this month, four have never before been seen here, and one has never been seen anywhere. They range from two original sequels (the musical “Scrooge in Love!” and “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a Pride and Prejudice follow-up) to British writer Clive Barker’s decidedly offbeat “Paradise Street” in its American premiere to two out-and-out comic pieces: the Skivvies, a singing duo with whackadoodle covers of familiar songs, and Killing My Lobster’s new sketch comedy show, “The Lobster Before Christmas.”
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Marin Theatre Company’s resident playwright, the prolific and imaginative Lauren Gunderson (“I and You” and many more), whose plays have been produced all over the U.S., joined forces with devout Austenite Margot Melcon to imagine what happens to Pride and Prejudice’s middle sister, Mary, two years after the novel ends. Elizabeth and Darcy are married, as are Jane and Bingley, and Mary, says Gunderson, is “a nerdy, spunky, strong-headed character who’s taken a few years to mature since Pride and Prejudice. The playwrights created a new character, the bookworm Arthur (a single man in possession of a fortune, of course), to craft a romance for Mary. Set in 1815, the sequel includes a few other familiar characters as well.
“We found that [using] Jane Austen is an amazing way to have a romance and a family story,” says Gunderson, “with enough of a feminist edge to have meaty topics and female experiences onstage. There’s something for everyone.
“In this world,” she adds, “we get to see a variation of women’s strengths . . . a beautiful world of sisterhood.” The play is brisk, full of banter—a comedy of manners that Austen herself might have written.
Nov. 29 → Dec. 18
Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
Another sequel to a classic novel is the plaintive and joyful musical by Larry Grossman (music), Kellen Blair (lyrics) and Duane Poole (book). Set one year after Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” ends, it posits a repentant Scrooge (Broadway actor Jason Graae) who’s looking for love—specifically, for his old flame, Belle. The regulars are back: Scrooge’s partner-in-crime Jacob Marley and all three ghosts (who dance), as well as the Fezziwigs, the Cratchits and a now-healthy Tiny Tim.
42nd Street Moon, the San Francisco company dedicated to resurrecting seldom-seen old musicals, occasionally stages something new; the company premiered this one last year and it was such a hit that it has been moved to a big downtown venue. Says director Dyan McBride, “It’s funny, it’s tuneful, it’s really melodic.” Since last year, the cast has expanded to 20, and the new space allows for bigger production values. The notion of time itself is a thematic element—“Marley has this beautiful ballad about not wasting your life,” notes McBride—so the set incorporates Big Ben. “Past, present, future; regrets; making up for lost time—these huge concepts go through it in such a hopeful and poignant way,” says McBride.
42nd Street Moon
Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco
Writer Clive Barker is “very English,” his plays “very unusual…not safe,” says Stuart Bousel, who is directing this Exit Theatre American premiere, set on Christmas Eve. “It’s rare,” continues Bousel, “that you get a Christmas play that’s also a dark fairytale or fantasy…. Half of the story is grounded in reality—kids in Liverpool facing a bleak future [it’s the end of the 20th century and their city is undergoing major urban revitalization]. The other half is this wildly absurd Elizabethan romance, and Barker smashes them together and uses [the play] to discuss a romantic versus a pessimistic world view.”
The absurdist half involves the sudden appearance, at midnight, of Queen Elizabeth I (played by Exit Theatre artistic director Christina Augello). Also time-traveling are her pet ape (she really had one!), the Earl of Essex (possibly her lover, whom she had executed), the playwright Ben Jonson and a few others. The play is about how God manifests, but doesn’t provide answers, observes Bousel. Rather, Barker uses a Christmas ambiance to theatricalize what happens when two opposing visions clash.
“For Barker, this is a happy play,” Bousel avows. “He opts toward optimism!”
Taking a completely different tone toward the holidays, the clever sketch comedy troupe Killing My Lobster is going for a goofy and good-natured look at the “underworld of holiday original stories.” The sketches in the new show, 15 to 20 in all and performed by a cast of eight actors and comics, are culled from a batch of 50 to 60 submitted by Lobster head writer Amanda Rosenberg and a group of Lobster writers plus director Molly Benson. “Amanda and I came up with all these stories behind Christmas and Hanukkah that are a part of our different traditions,” explains Benson. Wondering such things as where does the Santa Claus story come from, they asked the writers to keep in mind the TV series “Cold Case Files”: “You thought you knew Christmas, but do you know where …?” It’s about laughing at our own society, she says—not taking ourselves so seriously, humorously exploring the mythology of the various celebrations. A surprise guest act between sketches includes music and a clowning/dance group.
As part of its new series @TheStrand, American Conservatory Theater is bringing in the impudent New York-based duo The Skivvies, comprising close friends Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley. The pair of singer/actor/musicians has been seen nationwide but never before here, and they do indeed perform in their undies. From a panoply of genres—pop, rock, hip-hop, rap, musical theater—they mix, match and mash songs together via such elements as themes or chord progressions, says Molina. For example, they sing “Little Drummer Boy” smashed up with “We Got the Beat.” Or “Frosty the Snowman” with “I Melt With You.” “Frosty is great if you look at the lyrics,” says Cearley. “He dies at the end! It’s actually a pretty sad song.”
“We like to be irreverent and funny and turn songs on their head,” explains Molina. “Like ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ with ‘Hava Nagila’.” They also wrote their own sexy Hanukkah song because, well, who ever heard of a sexy Hanukkah song? And they accompany their vocals with assorted instruments such as ukulele, guitar, cello, glockenspiel, kazoo, whistles, boomwhacker, handbells and carimba. Guest performer Randy Harrison also appears. The show is not sexual or lewd, Cearley notes. “We’re rated PG-13 for language,” he jokes.