by Jeff Grygny
The dress rehearsal for the Saint Ignatius Episcopal Church Christmas pageant begins. Under lurid lighting, a bare room whose grimy walls, hung with scissors, suggests an abattoir. Mary screams over a stuffed lamb; Joseph murders God, shouting “God is dead!” Thus begins the first of The Nativity Variations, a farcical alternative to holiday fare currently playing in a world premiere at The Milwaukee Rep. Artistic Director Mark Clements commissioned prize-winning playwright Catherine Trieschmann to write a play that amazingly kluges together elements of A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and maybe a bit of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
At the fictional Saint Ignatius (yes, Episcopalians do honor Catholic saints, I checked. But it’s complicated), the open-minded Father Juan has invited Jules, the head of a local avant-garde theater, to direct the annual Christmas pageant. But the play becomes a battleground in the culture wars when Jules keeps injecting her radical feminism into the performance every time the good Father demands a rewrite. Each of the community players has his or her own challenge: the single mom; the actor who wants to salvage a romance after a breakup; the couple strained by financial difficulties, and the director in denial about her family problems. They all work day jobs and do theater for the love of it: amateurs in the best sense of the word. Mayhem ensues when a naive husband and wife are cast in this offbeat ensemble.
Trieschmann’s clever script is loaded with theater history: she lampoons pretentious experimental theater, gender-bending Shakespeare, and puppets for adults, while affectionately skewering the egos and intra-personal dynamics of community theater. Her broad takedown of artists who impose their ideologies on classic stories, in the process losing the qualities that make them great, had many people in the opening night audience guffawing and cheering.
As Jules, Sami Ma gives a grounded, sympathetic performance, rather than playing a stereotypical crazy director. Ryan Alvarado neatly contrasts his dual roles as the upbeat, patient Father Juan and a neurotic gym teacher/leading man. Chiké Johnson embodies the guy every community theater depends on: an actor/costumer/puppeteer whose psychological savvy precipitates the company’s turning point. As the straight couple out of their depth, Ann Arvia and Adam LeFevre instantly win the allegiance of most of the audience, and earn the heartiest laughs, while Sadieh Rifai brings attitude and intensity as the put-upon female lead.
Of course, as a never-before performed play, there are a few things that could benefit from a bit of refining. For one, the portrayals of community theater, church, and avant-garde art strain our suspension of disbelief: they present no actual church, community theater, or avant-garde production we know of, but only improbable caricatures. What priest would entrust his parish to such a radical director? How would the elderly couple have been cast, and how would any normal person so passively follow Jules’ bizarre directions without protest? Not to mention that it would be literally impossible for a community theater to come up with three complete sets and costumes for rehearsals, much less have all their lines memorized. Does the action all take place in Jules’ mind? Is it a dream, like Scrooge’s nocturnal visions? And why does Jules announce her interviews with Father Juan as scenes that she herself has scripted? It’s an enigma.
Puzzling over these discrepancies, we can easily lose the comic breeze. As if recognizing this, director Shelley Butler compounds the problem by having the players perform Jules’ scenes in a broad, clownish way—even the people who are supposed to be experienced seem to suddenly forget everything they know about good acting. There is nothing that sears the fragile wings of comedy more than “trying to be funny.” To be fair, there was goodly laughter in the audience on opening night—but there were stony, un-amused faces as well. Luckily, the encounters between Jules and Father Juan, the working out of the characters’ issues, and the plays’ restorative conclusion, achieve that unforced quality.
On a personal note: one of the saddest losses of the pandemic was the closing of so many local companies who worked on the edges of theater: The Alchemist, Off the Wall, Cooperative Performance, and Quasimondo, to name the most recent—now mostly vanished, and much missed. They labored mightily to create original work with extraordinary intelligence and passion, all while holding down day jobs. When the city’s 500 pound gorilla of a theater pokes fun at small experimental companies, it feels like punching down—though this was no doubt never the intention. Wouldn’t it be grand if the city’s richest company had offered uplift to its poorest and bravest? Just a thought.
The Nativity Variations‘ noble aim is to carve out a meeting space between liberal and conservative, if not with faith in the Bible, at least with the timeless hope of peace on Earth and good will towards everyone. By the end of the play, emotions are released, hearts warmed, and the “community” in community theater is affirmed. Has Jules capitulated to censorship? Has she realized that she’s been censoring the Bible all along? Did her heart suddenly grow three sizes? Ah, who cares? It’s Christmas time. Bless us, every one.
The Milwaukee Rep presents
The World Premiere of
The Nativity Variations
by Catherine Treischmann
playing through December 11, 2022