Holidays are all about traditions — stockings hung by the chimney with care, candles lit on menorahs and kinaras, yule trees decorated. This city has a bit of a tradition of subverting traditions, however (“Keep Asheville Weird”), especially when it comes to holiday theater offerings. Here, Xpress rounds up three local shows that remind us that part of the reason for the season is wonder, laughter and artful stage magic.
In the family way
For a decade, The Magnetic Theatre regaled us with boozy, irreverent adventures in the annual holiday-themed dark comedy, The Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular. But after its final run in 2019, the theater company’s producers sought a new seasonal show.
“We knew we wanted to avoid something that was an overtly traditional piece,” says Jessica Johnson, who directs this year’s run of It’s the Most ___ Time of the Year: Oil on Canvas.
The play, created by local actor and director Erin McCarson, follows matriarch Jean, who wants a family oil painting made, though none of her relatives are thrilled about the project. “The halls are decked, the trees are up, and the kids, Rosemary and Bing, will be arriving any minute,” reads the show description. “Loving tolerance and charity abounds.”
Johnson describes the show as “quirky craziness” with “some sad moments,” as characters deal with grief and interpersonal relationships.
Collaboration with the production’s six actors was crucial for the show’s success, notes Johnson. Each actor was asked to think about how they might deal with major life changes, such as having a new baby or coping with a death. Such reflection infused the play with authenticity. “Everybody who’s been involved in this show walks away identifying the [characters] as a family member or someone they know,” says Johnson. “They feel like real people.”
But don’t expect things to get too earnest. While there’s certainly a place for sweet holiday theater, dark comedy has an eager audience. “I think that’s partially because we all live those things more often than we live the ‘happy, tidy, superheartwarming,’” says Johnson.
“Sometimes it’s fun to escape and see something you know is going to have a happy ending, and that’s great,” Johnson continues. But Magnetic wants to offer an alternative for those who don’t necessarily have “happy families to spend all their time with, or children to take to The Nutcracker or traditional things in their lives,” Johnson explains. “They shouldn’t be excluded.”
Onstage at The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through Dec. 18. Tickets are $25. For more information, including COVID-19 policies, visit avl.mx/avq.
Four years ago at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, local actor and director Mike Yow was cast in the live radio version of the Christmas production It’s a Wonderful Life, and he fell in love with the piece.
“I’ve always loved that story and the characters and the way they spoke back then,” he says of the 1946 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, directed by Frank Capra. “For the live radio version, you only need five actors, so it’s a little cheaper to produce, and audiences like to watch the actors doing all the different voices.”
While It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is based on the 1946 classic, it is staged as a 1940s-era radio show, with actors portraying multiple characters and creating sound effects. Like the movie, the radio show tells the story of George Bailey, a well-meaning but downcast man, who, with the help of an angel, rediscovers the holiday spirit.
Four years since Yow’s first run with the production, he now returns to direct the 2021 holiday season performance, while also taking on the role of Freddie Filmore, host of the radio show.
For the show’s foley, or live sound effects, Yow and company rely as much as they can on devices used in 1940 radio productions, with some alternatives for items unavailable. “The audience likes seeing the actors go to the foley table to make a sound effect, then make it back to the microphone in time to sing a commercial jingle,” Yow says.
There’s a sense of nostalgia inherent in the 1940s-themed show, which Yow believes is part of its appeal. “We live in a complicated era, and [the play] harkens back to simplicity,” he says. “It’s a Wonderful Life ends with a sense of hope and accomplishment.”
Onstage at Black Mountain Center for the Arts, 225 W. State St., Black Mountain, Friday-Saturday, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, at 2 p.m., through Dec. 19. $20. For more information, including COVID-19 policies, visit avl.mx/axy.
What in the Dickens?
Actor Jeffries Thaiss of New York-based Art & Anvil Entertainment plays 26 characters in his version of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. But the production isn’t a one-person show. Music created by Eric Scott Anthony (and performed in Asheville by Ben Mackel) supports the story, says Thaiss. “There’s music that happens in a scene, like somebody’s at a party and a Christmas song is playing. But most of the time, the music sets the mood.”
Additionally, sound effects further the world of the show because the play itself has no set. “There are a couple of chairs and no costumes to speak of,” Thaiss explains. “The sound effects serve a function similar to what a set would serve.”
If this sounds as if the audience is asked to experience an all-new A Christmas Carol — the story where hardhearted businessman Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, and ultimately grows into a more compassionate and generous person — that’s not the case. Yes, Thaiss created a bare-bones production (though at N.C. Stage, it will include projections), but “the text is drawn almost entirely from Dickens’ original text.”
Thaiss, a professional actor for more than 30 years, has performed in a number of A Christmas Carol productions and felt they tended to deviate from the original 1843 story. “I really wanted to take what Dickens wrote and put that on the stage,” he says. And he did — though he truncated Dickens’ multiple hours of text into one 80-minute show.
“Human beings are natural storytellers and live in a world where stories are constantly present,” Thaiss says of why Dickens’ holiday tale has persisted for nearly 200 years. “A Christmas Carol is really good at delivering a promise of hope. … And the character of Scrooge is so extreme, we don’t feel personally indicted when we see him act greedy, but we subconsciously identify with him a lot.”
Onstage at N.C. Stage Company Tuesday-Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, at 2 p.m., through Dec. 19. Tickets are $25 for in-person seating or virtual show. To learn more, including COVID-19 policies, visit avl.mx/915.