Christmas stories take the larger Nativity narrative—the arrival of an ambassador of peace, goodwill and redemption—and put the metaphor to work on individual transformations, those personal moments when generosity of spirit triumphs over our meaner, selfish natures. The best results are both heartwarming and as unique as the transformed individuals themselves. While Doug Schutte’s “The Kings of Christmas” borrows liberally from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” this wacky and warm holiday comedy tells the familiar truth of personal redemption, but the telling is decidedly slant.
“The Kings of Christmas” opened last night at The Bard’s Town Theatre, directed by artistic director Scot Atkinson and Schutte, the company’s executive director. Atkinson and Schutte also star in the production, making it a true family affair. The show premiered last December and is back by popular demand through December 23.
Atkinson plays Carter Young, a cynical New York Times arts critic known for his savage reviews who returns home to Nevada for the holidays. The King family still mourns the loss of their patriarch, an Elvis-impersonating magician who disappeared on stage during a Christmas Eve show ten years before, but they manage to keep Christmas in their own way (wacky sweaters, fake aunts, a delightfully fratty ritual formed around bourbon shots—my kind of family holiday!) despite their unresolved grief.
At the top of the show, the family cat Marley has been found dead (as a doornail!) and failed lawyer Uncle Frank (Schutte) has decided to put Carter on trial for murder. In the living room. With his brothers Clinton (Ben Gierhart) and Kennedy (Jake Beamer) and his mother Carol (Jennifer Levine) and a host of stick puppets as the jury. And the love-sick girl next door Wendy (Beth Tantanella) as Carter’s defense attorney. (It’s a little “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and a little “The Ref.”) When your family ties you to a chair on Christmas Eve to make you confess to felicide, you pretty much have to play along.
Schutte’s fondness for Dickens is on full display, as several characters take turns offering narration in an askew homage of “A Christmas Carol” throughout the play. Also evident are his fondness for political gags and silly puns, which rise to new heights when the spirit of the pater familias appears in full regalia to show Carter the director’s cut of his Christmases past and present, as well as a peek into his lonely future.
The first act feels labored at times when Carter is made to over-explain his reactions to his family’s evident goofiness. The script could tighten considerably if it trusted the audience to follow along, and if Carter’s exasperated outbursts could be limited to one or two well-rehearsed, pithy condemnations of the Kings’ eccentricities. But the company’s high energy and commitment to their characters helps hustle the mock trial scene along.
Gierhart and Beamer go full-tilt to crazy as Carter’s idiot brothers, the boy-genius (or is he?) Clinton and tic-ridden aspiring magician Kennedy, who blames himself for their father’s accident. Levine’s performance as mother Carol (and her alter-ego Aunt Sylvia) adds a significant emotional weight to the second act that helps anchor the antics, while Schutte switches roles, playing twin brothers who couldn’t be more different, with aplomb. As Wendy, the hometown girl who still carries a torch for Carter, Tantanella is a sympathetic firecracker, and she balances the character’s unseemly desperation with a devilish sense of humor that keeps us laughing with her, not at her.
A Christmas transformation story relies on a believable redemption process, and Atkinson delivers the goods as Carter’s defenses fall away and he gets back in touch with the person he was before bitterness over his father’s disappearance set in.
The Bard’s Town Theatre will announce their 2013 season soon, and audience comment cards on the tables during the show ask for input on whether “The Kings of Christmas” should run again next year or not. Part of me says sure, let’s put on our wacky sweaters and “shoot the boot” every year, but an equal part wants to see what other unique holiday stories Schutte and company have up their jumpsuit sleeves.