Theater reviews

Welcome to the strangest holiday season! As we cozy up in our quarantine outposts for isolated holiday celebrations, much of Seattle’s theater community has rallied through hardship to make our socially distanced holidays a little merrier. There are so many virtual holiday shows to enjoy from the best seat in your house this year; here are three of them.

UPDATING: Want to get in the holiday mood? Check out these 2020 holiday events in the Seattle area

‘A Christmas Carol’

Piper Harden played Tiny Tim in ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” in 2019. She’s reprising her role this year in ACT’s radio-play-style production. (Rosemary DaiRoss)

Scrooge grumbles onto the scene with a cranky “Cratchit! You’re late” and makes his final exit at the end of the play as a changed man, laughing “giddy as a drunken man.”

As a novella, play, ballet, film and, at least once, a mime production, “A Christmas Carol” has long been the beloved holiday story that reminds us that people, even greedy anti-holiday curmudgeons, can change. In fact, it reminds us that they will change as we’re throttled by life’s circumstances — like, say, a carousel ride through time with a handful of quirky ghosts. Or, maybe, a year beset by pandemic, murder hornets, national protests and epically long elections …

With the pandemic keeping Seattle’s theaters closed to live audiences, ACT Theatre’s 45th annual production of “A Christmas Carol” has had to endure some changes, too, moving from the stage to our living rooms as a radio-style play. There are no elaborate costumes, no 10-minute dance scenes, no ghosts springing out of stage trap doors, no carolers outside the theater.

In their place are a new character — the narrator (voiced by Nathaniel Tenenbaum) — the luxury of a pause button and carefully crafted sound effects that bring the story to life.

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Shoes shuffling across a wooden floor and the sound of cheerful chatter approximate what would have been an exuberant dance sequence. The sporadic crackle of a feeble fire brings us into the cold room at Scrooge and Marley’s Counting House, a sound we wouldn’t have heard in the stage production. The disembodied hollow breath of an ominous spirit guide echoing in your ears chills you in ways that remind you this is also a ghost story. 

Little is lost in the play’s transition from stage to audio. It is still vibrantly acted and the soundscape (sound design by Sharath Patel) is rich enough to account for even the dullest imagination. Add in a cup of hot chocolate, some cozy socks and maybe a Zoom call with your family and the tone is set for a simultaneously more intimate yet socially distant holiday. 

Plus, like your favorite holiday songs, you can listen as many times as you want while it’s online. 

What to listen for: 

  • Sound designer Patel described what he calls “Easter eggs” he added into the sound design, like having an actor hold his hand over the mic while squeezing a stress ball to get a particular heartbeat sound. 
  • Tenenbaum as Narrator is more of a confidante sharing in the story along the way than a detached narrator telling you what happens when. 
  • Jeff Steitzer carries Scrooge perfectly, from disgruntled old fart to a man delirious with newfound goodwill, with such fun and engaging voice work. 

“A Christmas Carol” from ACT Theatre: Streams online through Dec. 27; tickets start at $25; acttheatre.org

— Crystal Paul

‘Scott Shoemaker’s War on Christmas!

The light, mildly sacrilegious holiday revue “Scott Shoemaker’s War on Christmas!” had been a recent holiday tradition at Re-bar. This year it streams online featuring, clockwise from left, Mandy Price, Waxie Moon, Faggety Randy, Scott Shoemaker and Adé. (Bronwen Houck Photography)

Meet Scott Shoemaker, a bearded, jolly, Christmas-loving fella who just wants to get his showbiz friends together for a sweet, religion-free Yuletide revue of song and dance and jokes like they’ve been doing at Re-bar since 2018.

But circumstances are conspiring against him. Coordinating a socially distanced show is tricky and, more importantly, his four friends (boylesque icon Waxie Moon, singer/improv performer Mandy Price, dancer Faggety Randy, singer/drag performer Adé) just aren’t that into it, for a variety of reasons. Waxie is like a bilious judge from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” preferring to trim his tree far from the shabby tastes of his friends, Randy is an occultist who’d rather be drinking goblets of hot blood and hosting pagan orgies, and so on. (Things, of course, resolve in the end.)

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The old “I’m-trying-to-have-a-nice-Christmas-but-the-world-is-making-it-difficult” gambit is familiar — dating back at least 2,020 years — but it’s durable and evergreen, a bare tree waiting to be decorated with bits and gags.

Shoemaker squeezes dark fun out of the pandemic, including a rewrite of the 1963 Phil Spector/Darlene Love classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”: “Stay within your four walls / Or we won’t have Christmas at all / Then again, if we all gather near / we may not have to buy as many presents next year.”

The show, as usual, is cheerful, light and mildly sacrilegious. (It’s not a “war” on Christmas so much as a few blithe pokes at the religious right.) Shoemaker leans into the awkwardness of streaming theater with details like the Virtual Validator 5000™, a machine that generates audience responses: laughter, gasps and “the one woman who’s really impressed.” (That is funny — many audiences have that “one woman,” and the VV5000™’s hilariously sincere “oh wow!” sounds like it was recorded in the field.)

Of all the forces conspiring to keep the show down, Shoemaker doesn’t mention the most severe and long-term bummer: 30-year-old Re-bar, that beloved “theater squatting in a disco,” closed in May, another casualty of the pandemic. Re-bar was the club that launched a thousand drag queens, incubated cultural treasures (Dina Martina, DJ Riz Rollins, a legendary production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” many more) and helped birth Shoemaker projects “War on Christmas” and “Ms. Pak-Man.” In a May Facebook post, Re-bar promised its resurrection somewhere in South Seattle — but the original, hallowed ground is gone.

It’s probably just as well “War” didn’t jangle its jingle by bringing that up. As Shoemaker says: “What is Christmas if not an escape from reality?”

“Scott Shoemaker’s War on Christmas!”: Streams online through Jan. 4; tickets start at $10; boldtypetickets.com

— Brendan Kiley

‘The Dina Martina Christmas Show’ 

After a year of strife and anxiety, “The Dina Martina Christmas Show” is a pleasant and bizarre vacation from reality. (David Belisle)

The secret ingredient to Dina Martina, and her solo-shows-with-pianist, is unintentional pathos. She is a caterwauling singer, a graceless dancer, a cheerful butcher of good sense and the English language. The tragicomedy of Dina always feels a little dirty, like we’re getting away with something forbidden — we laugh at her, but we’re allowed to. Hence, “The Dina Martina Christmas Show” has been a beloved, socially acceptable form of schadenfreude and reliable antidote to holiday treacle since the 1990s. 

But 2020, a year of intensity, tragedy, death and fear, presents a puzzle. After our 12-month feast of anxiety and anger, is anybody really up for a Dina-flavored dessert? 

She answers this question by sidestepping it. This year’s Christmas show, broadcast over the internet from her grand-looking, wood-paneled house, has a few faint nods to the pandemic (her ever-silent, ever-stoic accompanist Chris Jeffries is wearing a black cloth mask) and passes over elections and protests and the rest of the year’s roil in silence. 

Which feels appropriate. Dina has always lived in her own bizarre universe with its own illogic and vocabulary, where hamburgers are “livestock sandwiches” and the end of the year is “a time to deflect on past experi-yánces.” Slipping into Dinaland this year feels comforting in its familiar weirdness. Her suggested holiday cocktail is equal parts vodka, Kahlúa and cottage cheese. The name? “Chunky Russian.” She sings a rewritten-for-Christmas version of Styx’s “Babe” with a mind-bending vocal solo (singing that poorly has got to be hard work) and a lipstick stain that looks like her front teeth cut themselves shaving. And when she does mention this year’s “sedentary thing,” it’s in her very Dina way: “At one point over the summer, I was up to about 80, 85% body fat and I was considering just having my bones removed and donating by body to Benihana!” 

Dina’s glory, as always, is her delivery: Nuts, without the mellowing influence of irony, so it doesn’t feel like she’s in on the joke. It’s not hard to imagine Dina calling her local Benihana to inquire about their body-donation program. 

Coming in at just under an hour, this year’s “Dina Martina Christmas Show” is a quick but welcome vacation from reality. As always, she’s keeping it weird and benignly awkward — which might be just what you need.  

“The Dina Martina Christmas Show”: Streams online through Dec. 27; tickets start at $22.50; boldtypetickets.com 

— Brendan Kiley