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REVIEWS

Merry Little Holiday Shorts, by Various
Review of Onstage Atlanta's Merry Little Holiday Shorts
Monday, December 12, 2011
5.0
My wife and I had a terrific time at the Onstage Atlanta's Merry Little Holiday Shorts on Wednesday, December 7th, and again on Sunday, December 11th. (Full disclosure: I am the playwright for two plays included in this collaboration, so my review may be slightly biased, but I will try to remain as objective as possible). This production included 8 short holiday-themed plays. Seven out of eight were hilarious, and one was intentionally poignant and meaningful.

The production started with Mark Harvey Levine's "Oy Vey Maria". It was a huge success. The audience laughed loudly and heartily, and Shelley Barnett knocked it out of the park with her depiction of Mary's Jewish mother (Jesus' grandmother). Nat Martin was also hilarious as the stereotypical Jewish father, complaining that there's "No room at the inn." Possibly the funniest line of the play, though, was delivered by Lori Cox. When Martin asks if the Three Wise Men found room at the inn, Cox (as one of the Wise Men) nods and deadpans "We called ahead." Hysterical!

Next up was Shirley King's "The Christmas Fruitcake Caper: A Dragnet Parody". While I've heard Christmas Dragnet parodies before, (Stan Freberg's classic from 1953 is hard to beat -- www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1vJ4sXetw4), this one did set itself apart by focusing on a family drama, regarding a missing fruitcake. It was actually very hilarious. Unfortunately, Lucas Parker did not do a very convincing Joe Friday impersonation (as Joe Thursday), but his partner Frank Cannon (J Marcelo Banderas) was terrific, and Judith Beasley as the victim of fruitcake-napping was wonderfully bizarre and kooky. I think Parker was just a bit too young, and possibly a bit too nervous to pull off the iconically cool and collected Joe Fri- I mean, Thursday. Still, the other elements all worked, and the audience really enjoyed this one.

"The Brown and Serve Nativity" by Abigail Taylor was probably my favorite play of the evening. The concept - of two women with no theatrical experience having to put on an entire nativity pageant by themselves, since the whole cast became sick with food poisoning - was amazing. I wish I had thought of this. The two women in question - Sylvia Veith and Lori Cox - threw themselves body and soul into their performances. It was active, energetic, hysterical, and a little bit nuts... I was blown away. The only downside to this sketch was that the sentimental ending went on a bit too long. I liked the ending, I just felt it could have been tighter. Overall, though, it was my favorite of the evening.

The final play of Act I was "Squishy's Christmas" by Greg Abbott. It was surprisingly sweet and funny, despite its incredibly dark premise. The plot, in which Grandpa Ernie (played by Barry West) accidentally crushes his granddaughter's new Christmas present, while trying to remove himself from a cookie jar, despite having a broken finger on his other hand, and being dressed like Santa Claus in clunky boots, then somehow manages to rip his pants, thus showing off his tacky Christmas underwear to the audience - was all very funny in a Laurel and Hardy kind of way. That is, until we realize that the present that he crushed was his granddaughter's new puppy Skippy. That's when the play takes a dark turn, as Grandpa Ernie and Grandma Evelyn have to figure out a way to make it right. It was actually a very funny dark comedy, although the direction (by Sylvia Veith) kept it from ever getting too dark. It was a cute, silly, slapsticky kind of play, and the absolute highlight was seeing Katy Clarke (who was brilliant as a white-trash mother in one of the later plays) as the overly excited four-year-old who can't believe Santa's in her house! Or that his underwear is showing... It was all very funny.

Starting off Act II was Evan Guilford-Blake's surprisingly powerful play "Dreidel." It was not surprising that Guilford-Blake would write a powerful play, as many of his are quite profound, but that Onstage Atlanta would include such a powerful piece in the midst of all these slapstick farces. However, it really created a nice contrast, and kept us engaged throughout. It was such a beautiful story, of a young girl (played by Amy Morrow in monologue, and Abra L Thurmond in flashback) receiving a dreidel from her now-deceased grandfather (played by DeWayne Morgan). She tells the story of how he first made the dreidel, and then how he passed it on to her. It is told with such conviction, and the combination of live-action with shadow puppets really made the story come to life. My wife cried during this one.

Next up were two plays that I wrote: "Rebel Without a Claus" and "Mrs. Claus Gets Menopause". Of course, it's hard to be impartial on these, but I'll try. I thought the cast of both did a magnificent job - and the direction was spot-on in both as well. Unfortunately, I felt the script of "Menopause" was not as strong as I first thought. It was funny - the audience laughed, but I found myself being very critical of my own writing. Not at all by the performances - Nat Martin as Santa, and Lory Cox as Mrs. Claus were both spot on in their roles, and the direction by Barry West really captured what I was going for - but I still think the dialogue could have been structured better. That is my new New Year's Resolution - to fix "Mrs. Claus Gets Menopause"... Meanwhile, "Rebel Without a Claus" ended up being even funnier than I anticipated. I owe much of the comedy to the sound effects designed by Sylvia Veith. Also, the performances by Charlie Miller as Young Santa, Judith Beasley as Mrs. Claus, and J Marcelo Banderas as Santa's older brother Arthur, really brought this play to life in a way that was even better than I expected!

Last up for the evening was "To Grandmother's House We Go... Against Our Better Judgment" by Greg Freier. What a wonderful cap to the evening. This was a deliciously dark and almost raunchy sketch of a dysfunctional family on their way to visit Grandma, who "smells like cheese." The performances in this one were incredible - especially Katy Clarke as the dysfunctional matriarch. She played a four-year old in "Squishy's Christmas" with such glee, and then transformed into the grouchiest, most convincing white trash mother you could imagine. It's strange to say this of a 10-minute comedy, but her performance was captivating. Also notable was DeWayne Morgan as the patriarch, J Marcelo Banderas as the son, and Candice Jackson as the daughter. All four were spot-on as a grouchy, unhappy white trash family, all driving in a car (beautifully staged, by the way, by directors Cathe Hall Payne and Abra L Thurmond). It tells you how good the writing and acting is, when the patriarch finally pulls out a gun and shoots his wife, and the audience is laughing hysterically.

All in all, the show balanced Christmas sweetness with anti-Christmas antipathy in a very funny, engaging, and sweetly endearing handful of shows. Kudos to all of the cast, crew, and playwrights involved!

Daniel Guyton

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