Holiday whores

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

Virtually every Dallas theater company that's managed to hang in there more than five years has a holiday show that will, hopefully, finance the less commercial excursions of the rest of the season. December is the month when people are willing to drop cash in symbolic recognition of all the virtues--compassion, generosity, humility--that we don't practice the other 11 months of the year. If we have one iota of cultural guilt inside us, we will take our families and friends to the theater, the institution we should be supporting year-round--sort of like those Christians who make their annual appearance at Easter services and otherwise couldn't tell you the name of the pastor. Judeo-Christian popular culture has scheduled December as the month you pay money as a substitute for good works.

In the theater even more than in the church, money is good works. To the philistine philanthropists who scribble tax-deductible checks for companies whose most challenging work will never be seen by the check-writers (or will be endured with a clenched, "I'm being cultured" grin), I tip my scoop hat. So do I acknowledge the folks who attend the Dallas Theater Center just uno de annum for A Christmas Carol--you know, those Plano and Richardson CEOs who've just authorized the layoff of 200 workers and come to DTC with their kids because the lesson of Scrooge's transformation is so important. They are helping make it possible for the rest of us, in the productions they don't attend, to pore through our lives and theirs via challenging theater.

Meanwhile, theater companies, who pride themselves on upturning the complacent foundation of our lives spadeful by spadeful, are in the uncomfortable position of giving the people what they want for this three-week run. If you want to know what it feels like to be a whore at Christmas, just ask a theater artist. Hell, even theater entertainers whose agenda is no deeper than making you laugh and cry and feel sated by curtain's downfall are apt to feel cheap and tawdry, going through the motions of seduction they're supposed to repeat to help finance the stuff they really want to do. Enforced holiday nostalgia really is prostitution, especially on the stage--the actor is suddenly expected to cough up an emotion that may not be honest or in the moment. Live performers are petitioned to do the work of movie actors in the video-rental realm--repeat, rewind, repeat, rewind that favorite moment for the audience.

Two very different Dallas theater companies--Dallas Children's Theater and Undermain Theatre--are about to enter the final weekend of holiday shows that have previously proven profitable. You'd expect the Dallas Children's Theater, which gets big city and corporate money and has established itself as a big hope for continuing the habit of theatergoing into future generations, to have perfected its Christmas offering--slyly and slickly dazzling attendants into purchasing that season subscription. Meanwhile, you might've thought that the way-out-there Undermain, which began 15 years ago and experienced a small conflict when co-artistic director Katherine Owens nixed the idea of getting a phone for their office (they now have a Web site), would be holding a holiday show an arm's length away from their own discerning nose. In fact, Undermain's show is a vivid romp by actors who appear to be having a sinfully good time, while the DCT show is faltering and robotic from the sense of duty that permeates the cast.

This brings me to an important point: How do you give a bad review to a show whose cast is mostly underage and whose intended audience also is? I have seen a handful of entertaining productions at Dallas Children's Theater--and a startlingly memorable one, the spine-tingling AIDS voyage The Yellow Boat--but have a curmudgeonly suspicion that simply by including the word "children" in their name, they get a disproportionate amount of support for their efforts. Isn't hiding behind the generic cause of children a favorite way for politicians and pundits to sneak in opposition to stuff of which they personally disapprove, but which is actually completely unrelated to kids? Well, the reverse must be true--all kinds of lazy platitudes can be justified in the name of children.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever celebrates its decade anniversary this year as the Dallas Children's Theater December staple. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the blame lies for the spiritless Sunday-afternoon performance I attended (in the interest of disclosure, I missed the first 10 minutes): At various points, cast and script seemed to conspire to invoke this listless production about the most horrible children in the world, a clan of six soot-faced, dirty-mouthed (all that takes place offstage, of course) brothers and sisters named The Herdmans. They wind up crashing the church Christmas pageant, the direction of which is being taken over by Grace (Gail Willingham) because the snooty Mrs. Armstrong (Rosemary Kolbo) is hospitalized. But given that the Herdmans don't seem to have much to lose--a reference is made to the frequency with which child welfare comes to their home--they have a propensity for telling truths (like, say, pointing out that when the Bible says Mary was "great with child," it really means she was pregnant) that are, despite the attendant chaos, enlightening. And as the title reveals to us upon entering the theater, this will truly be...well, you can read.

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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