Holiday whores

Dallas Children's Theater and the Undermain milk their Christmas cash cows

Lest someone slap charges of injury to a child on me for expressing my displeasure with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, let me blame the two adults--playwright Barbara Robinson and director Nancy Schaeffer. It seems to me Robinson commits the cardinal sin of many authors of children's literature--she talks down to her audience. I am firmly of the belief that the best work for children always goes just a little bit over their heads, is just slightly too smart for them. If the work is entertaining on a fundamental level, it trains kids into adulthood to pursue that which they don't comprehend--if the thirst for knowledge is to be instilled, it will happen because of the realization that understanding something you previously didn't is fun.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever could be cannier, hipper, maybe even nastier than it is. The occasional interludes of jazzy, Vince Guaraldi-ish music may be an effort to snatch some reflected glory from A Charlie Brown Christmas, but invoking that animated masterpiece does not flatter this Dallas Children's Theater production.

I don't think Nancy Schaeffer as director has pushed some of her young actors into giving the performances they could. Case in point: Crystal Griffith as Alice, a young woman who desperately wants to land the part of Mary in the play's pageant. Griffith has a couple of very funny moments as this self-infatuated Miss Priss--watching her stumble over the word "pregnant" is great--but I think she has it in her to make Alice a truly monstrous ego a la Veruca Salt or other timeless Roald Dahl creation. Many of these actors are simply too rough-hewn under Ms. Schaeffer's direction. The excuse that indulgent adults might reach for is "But these are children," yet how insulting is that to these young performers and their young audiences--not to mention anyone who's plunked down nearly 12 bucks for admission?

Traveling eastward back through downtown to Deep Ellum and the Undermain, I was surprised yet again by something I saw in that theater. And no, it wasn't a costume made of rotted meat or a song and dance performed in the Nazi gas chambers or anything resembling such previous Undermain phenomena. It was a little dark-haired boy peering over the front desk after this performance of A Por Quinly Christmas and asking to talk to the Christmas tree (she had, sadly, retired her branches for the evening). There were tons of kids at the Wednesday-night performance I saw who cheered and clapped for the singing Christmas tree who loves pizza, a talking roach sidekick, and a family of snowpeople whose daughter thaws out when she falls in love. As soon as I hear the word "whimsical," it makes me want to sock the person who said it in the kisser, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another adjective that combines "fanciful, erratic, and unpredictable" in the Webster's definition. A Por Quinly Christmas is a smart holiday show.

The Undermain world-premiered Quincy Long's script last year, and this year's production has been streamlined, has had new music by Michael Silversher added, and, as far as I can remember, has been sweetened a bit--although Undermain staffers retained for publicity purposes what has to be the most priceless description of a production I've ever read in a press release. This show is a "gleeful musical sleigh ride about friendship, wishes, and the choking grasp of commercialism" (italics added by me). I think the anti-free-market tirades have been softened a bit for the 1998 Quinly, in which Mark Farr returns as the title character, a boy who has been taught to fear the shopping mall by his radical anti-Christmas activist father (Lynn Mathis). Por Quinly journeys with a singing Christmas tree (Kateri Cale) into a mall, where, it turns out, his fear was justified by the underground lair of Doktor Shopperlifter (Raphael Parry) and his vermin henchman Mr. Roach (Rhonda Boutte), a place where a most horrible fate awaits unsuspecting shoppers.

Of course, A Por Quinly Christmas, with its simultaneous send-ups of commercialism and self-righteous anti-commercialism and references to Samson Agonistes, is perfect for cynical, self-appointed intellectuals like yours truly--I get all warm inside after I've skewered social hypocrisy. Call it theatrical bait and switch, but I don't feel cheated. To address the head and the heart and still manage to keep things light is an impressive shell game any way you play it.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever runs through December 20. Call (214) 978-0110. A Por Quinly Christmas runs through December 20. Call (214) 747-5515.

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