The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 2, 2005
Suicide. Prostitution. Drugs. Ritual Execution. Incest. Dick Cheney. Ah yes, the holidays.
Or at least: the holidays according to The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee. For you'll find all this and more in this brand-new collection of very dark, very outrageous, and often very original short plays by some of the leading lights of indie theatre. There's something for everyone in this eclectic lineup, including a Hanukkah play where rabbis smoke joints and a Brechtian Weimar cabaret where Baby Jesus is literally and metaphorically tossed around like a political-economic football. The only thing that's missing here, in fact, is Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men (I think co-curators Jeff Lewonczyk, Hope Cartelli, and Michael Gardner are assuming you'll find plenty of that more traditional holiday spirit elsewhere.)
Now, before I tell you more about the individual plays, let me say something about the overall production. This is, like all Brick Theater endeavors, something of an epic extravaganza: I can't remember ever seeing a new one-act festival mounted by a company of this size with such high style. Production values dazzle: there are memorable costumes, sets, and lighting ideas; works of breathtaking high-concept; fine acting; and an abundance of good-natured (if often karmically-challenging) energy. Now all of this is scattered over a dozen different shows: the near misses greatly outnumber the outright successes. But the ambition is astonishing; you will not ever be bored.
There are two solo pieces among the twelve plays and interestingly they were the ones that worked best for me. John DeVore's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, directed by RJ Tolan and performed beautifully by Steve Sanpietro, is a touching and very smart monologue in which a man explores his own and others' deep and sad loneliness at holiday time. DeVore's writing is rich and full of unexpected touches, a few of which get us in the gut (something that doesn't happen very often in this Jubilee, which makes it all the more welcome). Peter S. Petralia's The Christmas Suicides, dazzlingly directed by Ian W. Hill, depicts a man lying on his back in front a mirror (allowing us to see him clearly, except it's a paneled mirror so the effect is more of a funhouse than objective reality). This man, Sam (played with splendid grace and control by Michael O'Brien), recalls for us all the Christmases when he tried to kill himself. With jolting simplicity, Petralia cuts right to the heart of profound sadness and its myriad sources.
Robert Honeywell's Ich Liebe Jesus! traces the sorry history of the exploitation of Christmas and Christ, from the Crusades, through the conquest and conversion of native populations in Africa and America, right up to the present day, with stops to acknowledge the most un-Christian contributions of Hitler, greedy corporations, and the current administration. It's all staged (by Jeff Lewonczyk) as a sort of Bob Fosse-meets-Bertolt Brecht cabaret, which is sensationally apt, and performed with precision by Honeywell, Lewonczyk, Gyda Arber, Sophia Skiles, and Angela Lewonczyk, with live music provided by Whitney Gardner (keyboard) and Meghan Stoops (clarinet). (The music is credited to Honeywell, but surely at least one of the songs is actually Kurt Weill's "Moritat," no?) Ich Liebe Jesus! is a brilliantly conceived indictment of modern complacent hypocrisy. It would work even better, I think, on a bill of more traditional fare; here, amidst such unrelievedly dark and subversive material, its shock value is slightly diminished.
Approaching Ich Liebe Jesus! in terms of thrilling, brazen inventiveness are Jeff Lewonczyk's Granduncle Tells the Children a Story of Kisselrite During the War and Young Jean Lee's Christmas. The latter puts centerstage a dollhouse with light shining from its windows, and lets us hear (via voiceover) the conversations transpiring within on a typical Christmas Day. It's a spectacular idea, and could have resulted in something as powerfully moving as the best of Thornton Wilder's elemental plays, if only Lee had resisted the impulse to naughtily shock us with rampant sex talk. The former attempts to invent a whole new religion and corresponding Christmas-like rite (the "Kisselrite" of the title), framed within a gentle parody of corny holiday-time nostalgia, as Granduncle does indeed reminisce about a Kisselrite of years gone by for a clamoring audience of nieces and nephews. This piece features some very sharp and very funny writing, as well as some excellent performances by Richard Harrington, Jessi Gotta, Mikki Baloy, and the masterful Fred Backus; costumes, by director Hope Cartelli—including the silliest winter hats and mittens I've ever seen—are delightful.
I also admired the novel and/or adventurous content of Eric Winick's M*E*N*S*C*H (a pair of rabbis smoke, drink, and talk sex on a break during an all-day marathon of Hanukkah services at a Reform temple); Danny Bowes's Walking Shadow (another examination of Christmas Eve loneliness, this time involving a high-powered female executive and a young man she has hired to be her "escort" for the evening; Susan Ferrara is particularly effective as the exec); and Jeff Tabnick's An Intelligent Design (a very cynical deconstruction of the "birth" of Christ and Christianity; Tabnick's cold and calculating view of organized religion is very smart, but it's undermined almost entirely by a gratuitous offensiveness that the play just does not need).
Damn Teddybears, by Alexis Sottile, is a madcap modern fairy tale (a la the Grinch) that is neither quite clear enough or funny enough to entirely work. Thomas Bradshaw's A Christmas Full of Family Love, about a brother in love with his sister, among other family dysfunctionalities, (and featuring Alicia Goranson, late of Roseanne, as said sister), seems more concerned with being way over-the-top than anything else. And Gary Winter's Execution of a Reindeer, about a young woman who travels to Alaska for the holidays (where she witnesses the eponymous event) and her mother, who speaks through a set of false teeth—well, I didn't understand what the heck this one is about. (The twelfth play, Jon Marans's Humbuggery, wasn't performed on the night I attended.)
The twelve plays are presented in two different programs (see the info at the top of this page for the breakdown); you can see one or both in a single night. This might be just what you crave after od'ing on Christmas Carols and Wonderful Lifes. But the dark vision of The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee started to wear me down, too; I suggest keeping the holiday, theatrically speaking, in both ways.