Theatre Review: “A Very Phoenix Xmas 4: Our Stockings Are Stuffed”

Cast of "A Very Phoenix Xmas 4" - photo by Julie Curry

Last Sunday afternoon, a new friend and I met at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see “A Very Phoenix Xmas 4: Our Stockings Are Stuffed.”  It was conceived and directed by Bryan Fonseca, with musical direction by Kevin D. Smith and technical direction by Christopher Hansen.

In years past, I wrote about Xmas 3 here on my blog, Xmas 2 for Indiana Auditions, and the first one in my private journal. 

Xmas 4 is the best one yet.

Somewhere along the way, someone at the Phoenix told me that the “X” in the show’s title stands for “alternative.”  In other words (and now I am paraphrasing wildly) the Phoenix’s annual holiday show is supposed to be for people who would just as soon X out all of the tired, banal, and/or emotionally manipulative holiday messages that seem to come at them from all sides this time of year.

In the past, I have loved the variety of artistic surprises offered in each Phoenix Xmas show, but I also confess that one or two sketches in some of the earlier shows were just a little too mean-spirited for my taste.

This year’s collection of short plays, songs, dances, videos, etc., though, is more about clearing away the crap than about pointing it out.  It is more about seeing and laughing at the common denominators that make this potentially stressful season funny and fun for all of us, while also acknowledging some of the sacred mysteries in it.

Or, as Lou Harry so perfectly put it in his review of this show for the Indianapolis Business Journal, “(This show, this year) is not a slap at the holidays.  The Phoenix clearly loves Christmas in its own, special way.”

Read the whole review for yourself here:  http://www.ibj.com/oh-christmas-plays-oh-christmas-plays/PARAMS/article/14928

The Journey to Bethlehem

Now, before you get all worried that the Phoenix has sold out somehow, please know that there is still plenty of irreverence in this show.  One short play has a department store Santa being mobbed by angry, right-wing families who think he is a socialist, for example. (“Who Is Kris Kringle?” by Eric Pfeffinger.)

Nor is it all fluff.  One short play has a little girl charmingly but profoundly discussing death and the after-life with a compassionate snow man, for example. (“Death of a Snowman,” by Daniel Guyton.)

Nor is it a “safe, family-friendly” show for Brady Bunch wannabes with little kids.  In one of the short plays, two strangers wake up naked in bed the morning after a holiday party, for example.  (“The Forty-Three Second Kiss,” by Isabella Russell-Ides.)  It is definitely still an adults-only show, thank goodness.

But Bryan Fonseca would be the first to tell you that the subtle switch to a more spiritual focus overall reflects where his own head and heart are now.  I love being in the audience at this point of his life journey with him.

Speaking of Journeys

Before the show on Sunday, assistant director Lori Raffel shared with me a little about what it’s like to work with Bryan.  (I share the following with her permission.)  She told me that:

I guess the most important thing I learned is that he is an actor’s director.  He loves actors and loves working with them and bringing out their best – as individuals and as an ensemble.  When I say that, it seems that all directors must love actors, but that’s not true.  So many times, directors have a vision and they use actors to bring it to life.  To me, Bryan asks the actors to come on the journey with him, so that everyone brings the vision to life.

The members of this show’s ensemble have certainly done that.  Each one of them sparkles in his or her own way, while also blending in perfectly with the rest.  When I try to write specifics about each actor’s performance, I find myself giving away too many spoilers about the contents of the show –  and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that this year – so I’m just going to say that all six cast members are stellar.  I.e., they are all strong actors, strong singers and dancers, and strong storytellers – both verbally and nonverbally.  They are a treat to watch and listen to, both individually and grouped.

The cast includes three newcomers to the Phoenix Xmas tradition:  Jason Gloye, Stephen Hunt, and Amanda Lynn Meyer.  It also includes three veterans:  Sara Riemen, Michael Shelton, and Gayle Steigerwald.

Room at the Inn for New Plays

My press release says that Bryan Fonseca read over 60 short plays from around the country in order to anchor this year’s show with just a few of them.  Then he thought about music and other performance art treats to go with them.  All of the short plays that made it into the show are premieres of one kind or another.  Many are world premieres.

Here are the names of (I think) all of the new short plays and their playwrights:

  • “Happy Hannu-Clog,” by Brett Hursey
  • “The High Cost of True Love,” by Leonard Joseph Dunham
  • “Death of a Snowman,” by Daniel Guyton
  • “Who Is Kris Kringle?” by Eric Pfeffinger
  • “The Forty-Three Second Kiss,” by Isabella Russell-Ides
  •  “Sun Moon Star,” by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut?  Yes.  After the show on Sunday, actress Gayle Steigerwald told me that “Sun Moon Star” was the only children’s story Vonnegut ever wrote and that it is now out of print.  She showed me the picture book that she had bought for her daughter, Jessica, when Jessica was a child.  (Jessica now is grown, has a family of her own, and runs the pub window at the Phoenix.)  The picture book was illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff.  The Phoenix team has adapted it into a new and very special theatre/storytelling piece.  Dani Norberg smoothly runs light and sound for the entire show; the lighting is almost another full character is this particular piece, it is so nimble and dazzling, and yet humble, if that makes sense. (Lighting design by Bryan Fonseca.)

Also after the show on Sunday, Bryan shared with me some of the negotiating that he had done with two or three of the playwrights to make their pieces even more effective.  The whole time he was telling me about this, I was flashing back to a multi-part conversation I had had with a magazine editor years ago who wanted to publish a short story of mine but insisted she couldn’t unless I took out a certain curse word that I had very deliberately included.  I felt bullied, but I really wanted my story published, so I buckled.  I changed the s-word to “manure,” the editor let me keep “orgasmic,” and life went on.

But…ultimately, the editor was right: without the “s-word” jerking their knees, her “Bible-belt” readers felt free to enjoy the story as they read it.  More importantly from my point of view, “manure” was a more surprising, and therefore more interesting, word than “sh*t.” I ended up using “manure” whenever I shared the story aloud with my own audiences, too, so I am glad now that she insisted on my thinking of an alternate word.

So…I sympathize with the Phoenix Xmas 4 playwrights that were asked to make changes, but I also applaud them for being willing to incorporate Bryan’s suggestions.  I think Bryan likes working with writers to bring out their best as much as he likes working with actors to bring out their best.  In any case, each of the short plays in “Xmas 4” seems very tight and good on its own now and also fits perfectly into the whole show.

I loved reading more about Bryan’s process in an interview that Jay Harvey did with him for the Indianapolis Star.  Read it for yourself here:

http://www.indystar.com/article/20091127/ENTERTAINMENT/911270306/Phoenix-returns-with-a-stocking-stuffer

By the way, the chance to experience new plays and new playwrights is one of my favorite things about the Phoenix Xmas shows – and about the Phoenix in general, in fact – but I was also delighted when Bryan told me that they are thinking of doing a “best of” show next year for Xmas 5.  I hope they do!

Design Elements

The set, designed by Bryan Fonseca, Christopher Hansen, and Lori Raffel, features HUGE, foil-wrapped packages set on a beautifully stenciled “skirt” under a HUGE, glittering Christmas tree.  It is fun to feel as if we are Gifted and Talented children on our tummies, imagining what’s in the boxes and counting the days until we get to open them.   Sometimes the presents “unwrap” (i.e. rotate) on their own to reveal the delights of the various stories, songs, and dances while other times the vignettes take place in between the gift boxes.   (Bryan Fonseca is the stage manager, assisted by Brandon Gelvin.)

Karen Witting designed the costumes, which include a fair number of amusing wigs, hillbilly gear, tap shoes, and other unexpected items in addition to a more standard – and just right – cuddly red Santa’s rig.  I was delighted to see in my program that Joan Walker is in charge of props.  I know her name from several Encore Association community theatre shows.  It is a pleasure to see her working with a professional theatre, too.  I don’t know if Joan or Karen was responsible for the 70? pairs of men’s’ boots needed for “Happy Hannu-Clog” (written by Brett Hursey) but they all looked great! What a hoot.

Speaking of tap shoes, Michael Shelton choreographed the show’s dance numbers, including a speed-of-light, sounds-like-hail-or-artillery tap dance.  Tim Brickley designed the sound and produced the music for the show.  It all sounded smooth, well-balanced, and intelligently festive.

The video segments this year are all connected into one story, written by Christopher Hansen, about what it’s like (supposedly) to be a member of the Phoenix staff.  The video series is bizarre and hilarious.  Even videographer Zach Rosing makes an appearance as the camera man who has lost control of the camera. Yikes!

There is also the Phoenix traditional slide show promoting other holiday shows around town.  In keeping with that generous spirit, I would like to link to other reviews of this show so that you can read them all easily.  I have already linked to Jay Harvey’s in the Indianapolis Star and Lou Harry’s in the Indianapolis Business Journal above.  Here are three more:

Read Josefa Beyer’s review, in Nuvo, here:  http://www.nuvo.net/arts/article/very-phoenix-xmas-4-our-stockings-are-stuffed

(Mind you, I disagree almost completely with her assessment.  I think the piece about the strangers bonding over “Rainbow Connection” in a crowded airport is brilliantly executed by the live actors, for example.  And only three stars?  Please.  However, I am still glad that I got to read her take on the show; I hope I will always be able to.)

Read John Belden’s review, in EastofIndy.com, here:

http://s97099322.onlinehome.us/eastofindy/?q=node/532

Read Katelyn Coyne’s thoughts, in the Indianapolis section of FunCityFinder.com, here:

http://indianapolis-indiana.funcityfinder.com/2009/11/30/review-a-very-phoenix-xmas-at-the-phoenix-theatre/

The best thing, of course, is always for you to go yourself and form your own opinion.

FAQ

It has taken me a whole week to write this review, and in the meantime, this show has come up in conversation several times.  Here are some of the questions I have been asked this week, and my answers:

So it’s only about Christmas this year?

No! The sketches that are about a specific holiday are, yes, mostly about Christmas, but many of the sketches are about aspects of the holiday season in general, or about Hannukah.

Okay, but is it funny?  I don’t care if it’s all about Christmas, as long as it’s funny.  Is it funny?

Yes.  It is very funny.

What did your friend think of it?

He had never been to a Phoenix holiday show before.  He said that he enjoyed it, and he called it “gently transformative.”

Do you think I need to make a reservation?

Yes.  Several performances have already sold out.

Is there anything else I need to know about this show?

Well, you probably want to arrive early so that you can check out the items that are up for bids in the silent auction in the lobby.  There is an eclectic mix of items donated by local businesses, artists, and random fans of the Phoenix.

Also, if you choose to sit under the mistletoe, you will get kissed by a cast member.

Box Office

Here’s the scoop from my press release:

A Very Phoenix Xmas 4: Our Stockings Are Stuffed! will be performed on the Phoenix Theatre Mainstage November 27 through December 20, 2009. Performances are Thursdays at 7:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Thanks to the generosity of Duke Energy, our CheapSeats performances have expanded to Thursdays and Sundays, so our prices for the Xmas show and the entire 2009-2010 Season will be $15.00 per person on Thursdays and Sundays. In response to the economy, and because we know that there are only so many entertainment dollars to go around, we are offering a discounted rate of $20.00 per person on Fridays and Saturdays (down from $25.00 last season). The Phoenix will continue to offer a youth rate of $15 for those 24 and under.  

Tickets for all Phoenix Theatre shows may be purchased by calling the box office at 317.635.PLAY (7529) or may be charged on-line at phoenixtheatre.org. All seating is general admission on a first-come, first-served basis. The Phoenix Pub, located inside the theatre, offers beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee, and bottled water, as well as treats, and all refreshments may be taken into either theatre and consumed during the performance. 

For more information about any Phoenix programs or to purchase tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 317.635.PLAY(7529). The theatre’s website is www.phoenixtheatre.org. 

********** 

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

P.S. – Photo above is by Julie Curry.  The cast (left to right) includes: Stephen Hunt, Amanda Lynn Meyer, Michael Shelton, Sara Riemen, Jason Gloye, and Gayle Steigerwald.

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