By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There is a wonderful collision of the best of theatrical possibilities in Christmas at Ground Zero, especially at this time of year. It offers real emotion, not mere sentiment; short bursts of inspiration, not two-act platitudes; and genuinely surprising subject matter woven into a holiday context, rather than rote tales of redemption during a season when empathy and humanity are compulsory. I would like to sit in a theater audience and watch Scrooge send Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and all the other tacky Christmas ornaments of virtue out onto the snowy sidewalk, counting gold coins with relish while they shivered. And not because I like to see kids suffer (at least, not most kids), but because sometimes the most impressionable lessons in moral behavior are the ones in which horrifying misbehavior is depicted unflinchingly, its consequences impossible for ticketbuyers to ignore.
Ground Zero Theater Company, the company behind Christmas at Ground Zero, clearly understands this, but doesn't rub it in your face. Still, it's risky, since I seem to be among a small percentage of folks who still appreciate the Greek theatrical phenomenon known as catharsis, where the audience members "suffer" along with the protagonists and are cleansed by that nearness to tragedy. Fact is, I'd probably sit in the theater alone, and pay the actors and director and designers out of my own pocket.
Ground Zero is bold and occasionally belligerent but not altogether devoid of compassion in the choices it has made for Christmas at Ground Zero, which consists of 11 roughly 10-minute plays by North Texas playwrights. These authors and artistic director Kimberlyn Crowe have indeed taken a page from Aristotle's great lost volume on catharsis and presented a series of sometimes grim displays of loss, regret, family cruelty, loneliness, and betrayal. Are you ho-ho-hoing yet?
You will be if you catch Christmas at Ground Zero. Many of the aforementioned emotions and experiences, which can be heightened during the holidays as folks are hammered by the demands to be happy and festive, are turbo-charged by the demands of the sketch format in this production and by a roustabout sense of humor that says: When you feel like you've lost everything, you've got no good reason not to laugh. That's the laughter of release, letting all the meanness go, and to my mind that's an infinitely more satisfying cathartic effect than a good cry. A couple of the pieces in the show might offend theatergoers who expect their innate benevolence to be confirmed by yuletide entertainment; to them, Ground Zero's gift will probably look like a big pile of coal. But for more adventurous theatergoers who seek to laugh at their own foibles, especially those that can wreak tearful havoc, the crack cast of this Texas sketch revue polishes those carbon deposits till they throw off gem light.
Don't get me wrong -- not all the vignettes in Christmas at Ground Zero are of equal quality. But the evening has been arranged with a critical awareness of the highs and lows, the potholes and the giddy swerves and hills, so that something utterly arresting is waiting just around the corner. We're dealing with 10-minute pieces here, not one-acts, so some of the smartest and most cutting dialogue serves as setup to a singular punch line. You can't really construct a successful piece so short with any greater subtlety.
A perfect example is Erik B. Knapp's "The Night Richard Harris Saved Christmas," a horror-film spoof about a ragtag collection of Christmas office-party refugees (Jeff Schmidt, Lulu Ward, Steven Blount, Colleen Beakey) battling a fruitcake. Knapp sets up the atmosphere with a perfect knowledge of those squabbling-survivors-fighting-to-stay-alive scenarios in monster movies, and the "creature" appears right on time and has the audience howling. On the startlingly poignant side, Vicki Caroline Cheatwood's "10:10" finds a dead woman (Lulu Ward) looking back on an affair she had with the brother (Jeff Schmidt) of her husband. Though there are only fleeting Yuletide references found here, it works hauntingly as it describes how most adults experience the season -- as a sort of nagging ironic soundtrack to all the stress in their lives.
Schmidt returns in the evening's meanest exercise, Steven Tribe's "Early Start," in which he plays a little lad who sneaks down to the tree early in the morning only to have his parents (Tom Eppler and Leticia Magana) waiting to tell him what they've always thought of their son. Sadistic? Yeah, but the audience once again laughed themselves wet. The evening's closer is a sly wink to Dallas theater insiders and playwright Cameron Cobb: Reg Platt's "You'd Better Watch Out" is a parody of Cobb's Didymus, but instead of the disciples stealing the body of Christ to preserve the Christian faith, the elves (Schmidt, Beakey, Wm. Paul Williams) snatch the body of Santa Claus to salvage the spirit of Christmas.
Christmas at Ground Zero brims over with impressive character turns, especially by Schmidt, Lulu Ward (whose versatility in this show is staggering), Tom Eppler, and Leticia Magana. They and their co-stars gave me the best present I've received at a holiday show in a long time -- laughter, empathy, and honesty.