Dallas — When you take your seat for Theatre Three’s holiday show Solstice: A New Holiday Adventure you just may think you’ve passed through some kind of wormhole in the space-time continuum and ended up not at the Norma Young Arena Stage in the Quadrangle but at NorthPark Center on the other side of town.
That initial disorientation is thanks to scenic designer Jeffrey Schmidt, who quotes just enough of NorthPark’s architectural features to leave no doubt as to the play’s setting. Audience members will recognize the floor tile and planters, artworks by KAWS (Clean Slate) and Jonathan Borofsky (Hammering Man), and even some of the mallard ducks who have made the shopping center home.
Written by local playwrights Jonathan Norton and Janielle Kastner, Solstice is directed by the accomplished vickie washington and co-directed by Richard T. Quadri, with original music and music direction by Cherish Robinson.
Paul T. Taylor plays Stuart, a role he originated in the theater’s first version of Solstice (which had different writers and scenarios) last year. Stuart is a widower who is having a difficult time moving on after the death of his wife. As one character sees it, his drug of choice is not the hydrocodone pills he carries with him but the past. One wonders how the jokes about hydrocodone abuse will age.
Complicating his addiction is Paulette, a woman who delivers his Meals on Wheels and whom Stuart is falling for. Paulette is impeccably played by M. Denise Lee, who effortlessly shifts among flirty, scared, and fuming. Their love story serves as the backbone to the sometimes chaotic storyline.
Before love can bloom, however, both Stuart and Paulette must first let go of their pasts. For Stuart, that means saying one last farewell to his deceased wife Lola, played in a quasi-flashback scene by Marti Etheridge. It is refreshing to see Etheridge, who has fittingly been cast in several over-the-top comic roles like Mrs. Mousey in Ochre House’s Mousey and Lizzy in Danielle Georgiou Dance Group’s Just Girly Things, equally excel in a dramatic role.
Besides, Etheridge has plenty of opportunity to milk gut-busting laughs in her other roles in Solstice, which include Misery, a “three thousand mumble mumble” year-old narrator of sorts, Maria, the “leader” of a “group” of anarchists who spend more time arguing about not being a group than sabotaging the consumerist patriarchy, and generic NorthPark Mom No. 1. As Misery, Etheridge lands each joke with flawless comic timing, mastering both “high” and “low” comedy.
In addition to her obsession with all things CSI: Miami and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, one of the things keeping Paulette from happiness is her fictitious relationship with the ghost of the real-life (or at least an exaggerated version of the real-life) Johnnie Taylor, a singer who had a celebrated career in blues, R&B, soul, and disco from the early 1950s until his death in 2000. He was dubbed “the Philosopher of Soul” and also known as “Johnnie Taylor, the Wailer.”
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him or don’t remember his stint as a local DJ on KKDA during the last decades of his life: the script gives you just enough information about him. He is perfectly and winningly played by Robinson. (Also helpful is a brief glossary is included in the program.)
The cast is rounded out with three other skilled actors who play no less than nine characters. Jason R. Villarreal plays Stuart’s son Greg and radical anarchist Leander. Abby Chapman juggles three roles: Stuart’s granddaughter Riley, the anarchist collective’s Kid, and NorthPark’s Miss Nancy, the Keeper of the Keys. And Nikka Morton covers the roles of Paulette’s daughter Alpher, anarchist Christy, NorthPark Mom No. 2, and NorthPark’s graceful Large Leaping Hare sculpture come to life.
Costumes by Rhonda Gorman span the spectrum from Christmas chic to ugly sweater. Dynamic choreography by Danielle Georgiou makes the musical numbers exciting and keeps the action flowing. Sid Curtis’s animation design adds even more laughs to the already hilarious script. One of the stand-out numbers of the production is “Sweet Misery Amor,” a tango performed by Villarreal and Morton.
The play fully embraces the spirit of Christmas, insofar as it shares its life-force with consumerism. The radical anti-capitalist group (“not a group”) would’ve been the perfect characters to explore a less consumerist version of Christmas with, but their hasty criticisms aren’t much more than straw-man punchlines. There’s the slightest acknowledgment that the group (“not a group”) is really a family, but their main purpose comes across more as reasserting the importance of shopping. Also, these characters, like that of Miss Nancy near the end of the play, seem to come from nowhere.
The first act is stronger than the second, which tends to bog down with repetitive scenes of Stuart taking a step toward his new love Paulette only to retreat at the last minute. Considering that half of the plot takes place in Crawford Memorial Park, a wooded park in the southeastern Dallas area of Pleasant Grove, it would’ve been nice if more of an effort was made to incorporate that setting into the otherwise suitable stage design. Even while Paulette and Stuart are lost in the woods, for example, they remain surrounded by the trappings of NorthPark. (Side note: Pleasant Grove, where playwright Norton grew up, will be represented next year in the world premiere of his play Penny Candy at Dallas Theater Center.)
Theatre Three’s production, which runs approximately 110 minutes including intermission, lives up to its title—it’s a holiday adventure that will make you laugh and leave with a smile on your face. That’s what we’re looking for this time of year.