Chasing His Tale

There are only so many Cratchits and Nutcrackers and flock-watching shepherds a person can stomach this time of year. It's nice to see theaters offering alternatives to the traditional tinsel-dripping holiday hooha. Opening over the next couple of weeks: Theatre Britain's lighthearted "panto" version of Snow White at Trinity River Arts Center (opening November 27); the comedy The Underpants at Plano Rep (November 27); remarkable singer Jenny Thurman taking A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline at WaterTower Theatre (December 1); David Sedaris' hilarious Santaland Diaries, again starring wry Nye Cooper at WaterTower Theatre's Stone Cottage (December 3); Classical Acting Company's production of O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi at Richland College (December 4); the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Theatre Three (December 6); the Punch Drunk Comedy troupe offering an irreverent Nogballs at WaterTower's Studio Theatre (December 10); and the Alan Menken/Tim Rice musical King David at Irving's Lyric Stage (December 15).

Just opened is one of the nicest gifts to the fa-la-la-phobic. It's a nutty little one-man show at Kitchen Dog Theater called Circumference of a Squirrel (A Riff With an Inner Tube), which is only a little bit about Christmas and thus tolerable to anyone hungover with humbuggery. Writer John Walch's quirky 80-minute monologue addresses the dangers of squirrels, Jewish girlfriends, anti-Semitic fathers and craft-obsessed mothers. In the show's one and only role is Kitchen Dog company member David Goodwin, a wiry young actor with a talent for physical comedy and the amazing ability to bring to life a host of oddball characters we never see.

As Chester, a super-dweeb taking a break from scientific research to deal with a series of family crises, Goodwin turns in a funny, deft, emotionally layered performance that elevates Walch's cornpone-prone material. "This story begins with a squirrel and a bagel," Chester announces at the beginning of what will be a bittersweet romp through his life story.

The squirrel, see, tries again and again to transport a bagel up to its nest, undaunted by the roll's weight and unwieldy shape. Chester watches the animal's efforts, fascinated at its tenacity. He hates the little beasts but sees them everywhere. The squirrel is Chester's white whale, a lifelong obsession that begins when his father is bitten on the foot by one and has to undergo weeks of painful rabies shots.

Chester's dad is an unrepentant redneck Jew-hater. Chester grows up to fall in love with a Jewish girl. Taking her home to meet the folks at the holidays (his, not hers), he has a panic attack and has to pull off the highway. (Here the playwright succumbs to a spectacularly clunky simile: "Kansas City rises like an ape." A loaf of white bread maybe, but never an ape.)

Dad predicts the marriage will fail. It does. Chester has been squirrel-bit by his father's bigotry but realizes it too late to stop the divorce. He gets one last chance to confront his old man in a scene of deathbed redemption, but it doesn't go the way he planned.

Circumference of a Squirrel finds poor Chester going around and around, not just about his relationship to rodents and to his father but to all things circular. Doughnuts, washers, tire swings, Lifesavers, wedding rings, inner tubes, steering wheels and his mother's elaborate homemade wreaths all symbolize the hole in Chester's psyche. "If I let go of my hatred for my father, then who am I?" Chester wonders.

Goodwin, directed well by Tina Parker, does a keen job jumping in and out of the voices and postures of Chester, Chester's dad, mom, wife and even the bagel-fighting squirrel. Time jumps, too, with Chester alternately stepping back and forth on a timeline punctuated by encounters with bushy-tailed critters. On a nearly bare stage in Kitchen Dog's Black Box Theater, this play provides plenty to chew on, and Goodwin turns in an extraordinary performance that has the crowd eating out of his hand.

Surely a ticket to hell's finest dinner theater awaits any poor scribe who dares dump on a Christmas play performed in a church. So, risking an eternal front-row seat for the netherworld production of The Gin Game starring Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, here's a big wet razzberry to Get a Wonderful Life, now onstage at the Labyrinth Theatre at Arapaho United Methodist Church in Richardson.

Just weeks ago, actor Paul Taylor was earning standing O's for his killer performance as the lead in The Rocky Horror Show at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Now he's stuck in a dreary production of a terrible two-man play about an angel who's lost his wings. Taylor plays Frank, a non-believer trying to watch Capra's It's a Wonderful Life on a quiet Christmas Eve. A wayward angel named Donald Reed (argh) falls onto his balcony and takes up residence, eager to convince Frank of the wonders of heaven. Donald is played by Labyrinth founder Kevin Ash, a white-blond elf with the subtle comic acting style of Robin Williams mugging his way through Mork from Ork.

It's all just too, too painful. Taylor, a wonderful actor, actually seems to be holding back to keep his co-star from looking even more amateurish by comparison. The play is 90 minutes long and feels like a long winter's night.

Keep Zuzu's petals in your pocket. And remember, no man is a failure who has friends who steer him away from bad shows.