Dallas — Last year Nouveau 47 Theatre revived what was once a local holiday theater tradition—a festival of 10-minute plays, originally conceived by the much-missed Ground Zero Theatre Company—and, well, it was rough going. It’s a good thing they've hung their stockings with more care this year.
The second A Very Nouveau Holiday is a lords-a-leaping improvement over the first, with 11 (10 on some nights) short plays that, while varying in quality, handily tip the scale to the “terrifically entertaining” side. Happening at the Margo Jones Theater, it’s a great case for a fun, irreverent reprieve from Ghosts of Christmas Tenses, elves and the Great Polar Red One.
Not to say that those characters don’t make an appearance in AVNH. This is the perfect opportunity to toy with Christmas traditions, after all.
I have to start by getting Playing Santa out of the way. It’s written by Kris Noteboom and performed by him and Lance Lusk, only on the bill on Thursdays and Saturdays. If those names sound familiar it’s because they’re both critics for TheaterJones, and yes, that means I am their editor.
They are in Santa suits, awaiting a mall Santa audition. Noteboom’s in-the-moment character doesn’t understand why Lusk’s Santa is depressed and angry about an audition he considers beneath him. He has performed in Shakespeare plays, after all. It's a funny commentary on the tough business of being an actor, and that's something critics should understand well.
The rest of the plays are seen at every performance and feature the AVNH ensemble of DeWayne Blundell, Ginger Goldman, Ana Gonzalez, Shane Hamlin, Johanna Nchekwube, Maxim Overton and Maya Pearson. The directors are Alex Bigus, Rebecca McDonald, Kelsey Johnson and Erin Singleton.
Justin Locklear’s I Spend Christmas Alone (directed by McDonald) is the heaviest, dealing with an alcoholic father (Shane Hamlin; character names are not listed in the "Sleighbill") and the people who love him. Playing drunk is never easy, and Hamlin’s is a messy drunk; it’s hard to tell if it was written that way.
Bill Otstott’s The Secret Lives of Elves (director Bigus) puts contemporary workplace problems in Santa’s workshop, where sexual harassment, union disputes and sensitivity training are the normal fabric of the time clock-punching life. It’s the slightest work here, and that’s OK.
Kelsey Johnson’s Wall of Color (Johnson also directs) is about two girlfriends (played by Goldman and Nehekwube) about to visit Nehekwube’s character’s parents at Christmastime. It’s a sweet little script, and Goldman, who is consistently the best performer in this festival, gives her finest turn here. It’s too bad that Nchekwube seems tentative about playing a lesbian.
Another show with a gay theme is David Bernard Houck’s Christmas Time is Queer Again (directed by Bigus) in which Blundell and Overton play lovers who have invited Blundell’s character’s parents over for Christmas. The parents disowned their son when he came out, and so this reunion is awkward—and more so than a typical holiday family gathering. There are touching moments and a funny twist when the mom (Goldman) makes her own announcement.
Kevin Fuld’s Christmas Drinks (directed by Johnson) and Matthew James Edwards’s CODENAME: Ghost Protocol (directed by Singleton) use supernatural/fictional characters to comment on the human condition. The former has some thought-provoking dialogue, and the latter is an intriguing take on A Christmas Carol. Both feature strong performances. Reasoning for the Seasoning, written by someone named Virgil (yeah, not that one) is also in this vein, but it’s clunkier.
The three best plays come from more established local writers.
Ben Schroth’s Before I Sleep (directed by McDonald) is a memory play about a daughter (Pearson) remembering special moments with her mother (Goldman). It’s uncharacteristically sentimental for Schroth, but completely welcome given the holiday theme. He has a talent for vivid dialogue.
Brad McEntire’s Corner Office Sky (directed by McDonald) happens at an office Christmas party in a high-rise. Blundell plays an employee who thinks he might actually score with Gonzalez’s character. It’s clear early on that she doesn’t work for the same, um, company, but it’s fun watching him work up the courage to go for it. The ending is well done by both actors.
Best of show is Jim Kuenzer’s Gift of the Hipster Magi (directed by Bigus), which is exactly what it sounds like: O. Henry’s short story with a postmodern, hipster twist. Blundell and Gonzalez play the lovers of the story who want to get each other a gift (I won’t spoil it, but they are tres hipster), but have to sacrifice something in order to afford the gift. It’s purposefully performed in a presentational style, which makes the whole thing even funnier. O. Henry’s story is one of literature’s best examples of true irony, and that clever devil Kuenzer makes his smartest dig at hipster culture by turning it into something that’s done merely for the sake of being ironic. Like someone who prefers music by The Smiths and Pixies thinking their fondness for, say, a Celine Dion song, is an “ironic like.” (Hey, maybe there should be a Facebook button for that.)
To quote from one of pop culture’s biggest misuses of the concept of irony—that Alanis Morrissette song—“who would’ve thought…it figures.” Whatever.
Overall, A Very Nouveau Holiday is one of the better options for holiday theatergoing—and that’s said without a hint of irony.