It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play and A Tuna Christmas Are Strictly Non-Commercial
Whether your Christmas celebration is an affirmation of all that is decent about the holiday season (joy, goodwill to all, Wal-Mart gift cards) or all that is overbearingly rotten (be-happy-or-else, overconsumption, Wal-Mart gift cards), just realize that regardless of what it looks like, you're part of one of the oldest stories known to people-kind. It's a story with roots far deeper than Thomas Nast's jolly tub of lard, the birth of the redeemer of mankind amid manure, and even the Roman feast of Saturnalia, at which, for one day, even slaves could wear hats.
It all has to do with maybe our oldest collective story: the days getting longer after the Winter Solstice, the return of the sun. Why else do so many of the enduring stories around this time have to do with miracles of light beaming amid the darkness: Hanukkah's temple light burning for eight days; the Star of Bethlehem; stores opening at midnight on Black Friday?
They are rituals, and in some fashion, rituals are all about the retelling of stories—some older than others, but still stories. So it's not surprising that the oldest communal ritual that still exists today—the theater—remains a place where stories reign supreme. And at least two of the plays on local stages this holiday season are reminders that, when it comes to telling stories, we don't need any of the bells and whistles we've grown accustomed to seeing in our contemporary ones.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at STAGEStheatre and A Tuna Christmas at Stage Door Repertory Theatre couldn't be any more different. The first is the American holiday chestnut of a man in crisis who realizes the gift of life; the other is one in a series of plays set in Tuna, Texas, the state's third smallest town, a community filled with gossipy, small-minded rubes, most of whom seem to be missing a full set of matching chromosomes.
Although the material is vastly different and the responses engendered by these productions vary greatly (let's just say one of them made even these misanthropic, curmudgeonly orbs misty-eyed, while the other prompted an exit at intermission), it's the stripped-down, no-frills-required telling of their respective stories that make them so refreshing.
As the name implies, this adaptation of the screenplay of Frank Capra's 1946 film is a radio play. Adapter Joe Landry sets everything in a New York radio station, circa 1950, with a group of performers playing the various roles for listeners at home and a live studio audience. There is no set to speak of, merely a couple of vintage microphones and a large applause sign. The special effects are supplied by a pianist and a sound-effects operator, who uses everything from hammers and whistles to mimic sounds ranging from slamming doors to police sirens.
Obviously more of a staged reading than a full-fledged production, the show works not only because it's an homage to old-time radio, but also because it is so visually sparse. Nothing gets in the way of the telling of the story. Sure, it's sentimental Capra-corn, but the story has a heart, and at least one spectator—11-year-old Daisy Kates, the granddaughter of the dude who owns the Back Alley Bar in Fullerton, where I sometimes sling drinks—said at intermission that she greatly preferred this bare-bones production to the actual film, which she'd seen the week before.
The only nonverbal accouterment in A Tuna Christmas is costumes. A lot of them. Makes sense, as two actors (Robert P. Purcell and Bill Peters) play more than 20 characters between them, often needing to change costumes in less than a minute. Quick-change artistry has been around a long time, from Japanese Kabuki theater in the 16th Century to Charles Ludlam's genius work in his 1984 work The Mystery of Irma Vep. While the paper-thin story and even thinner characters of A Tuna Christmas don't rise to that level, it's still an example of where in the marginalization of theater—compared to film and television—its greatest strength lies: It can do more, way more, with far less.
DuraFlame didn't manufacture the oil in the temple. General Electric didn't underwrite the Star of Bethlehem. The Yule log was not brought to you by Home Depot. They were stories that turned into ritual, with nothing but the story as evidence. So, as 2013 blends and bleeds into 2014, here's a gift request for theaters large and small. Think less about glitzy production values, video projections and underscoring, and think a little more about choosing good stories, and then do what the best storytellers have always done: Get out of the way.
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