As documented in the first edition of Real Change’s new theater column, Staged in Seattle, there are quite possibly too many Christmas plays running in Seattle right now. Like, more than any person — no matter how driven they are to watch anything and everything on a stage — should reasonably see.
Given that I am the opposite of that hypothetical, insatiable and theater-obsessed omnivore — I have seen plays only when forced to in school or, later, by romantic partners — our arts editor Henry Behrens thought it would be funny to send me out on review duty.
Actually, I kind of walked into it by commenting that “A Very Die Hard Christmas” sounded like something I would voluntarily see. Next thing you know, there were press tickets for Dec. 7. But they came with strings attached: I would review as many oddball or outré Christmas acts as possible in a span of about two weeks, to help thin the herd.
I wish I could say I saw them all, but it turns out my limit is three. If you are reading these reviews to learn which thespian had the best technique or whose sound design rocked the hardest, don’t — I haven’t the foggiest. All I can tell you is that what all of these theater people do is very impressive, looks completely exhausting and, given that two of the three shows asked guests to add a tip for cast and crew afterwards, should probably pay a lot better.
Kind of sounds like journalism!
Anyway, because this whole thing was conceived as a joke, we’ll dispense with chronological order and dive right into what was arguably the funniest of them.
‘A Very Die Hard Christmas’
Seattle Public Theater | $38 | 90 min. | through Dec. 20
I have never laughed harder at something that was not on a screen. From the moment the actors walked onstage to the final bow, the gags, zingers and physical comedy bits did not stop. Much of the humor relied on a heightened state of ridiculosity, which the cast did not let lapse for a single one of the show’s 90 minutes. Everything was so big, so zany and so delightfully overacted, and so much was happening all the time.
The premise is simple: the original “Die Hard” plot, on stage, as a musical, using water and Nerf guns instead of real ones and with absolutely no fourth wall. Not even a fourth tarp: the audience was constantly pelted with water and Nerf darts. My neighbor caught a stray (and dutifully returned it afterwards). There’s also a whole side bit about “fist toes,” which you’ve just gotta see for yourself.
I agreed to Henry’s ploy because I love the “Die Hard” movies. I’ve seen them all, even the fourth one with Justin Long and the weird daughter subplot. They’re great because, like all action movies, they’re inherently ridiculous. Actual action, in the sense of combat or terrorist attacks or police shootouts, usually just involves lots of people from all sides suffering and dying. Not something people would pay $15 to go see with a bucket of popcorn.
Good action movies don’t bother with realism and instead go for big, ridiculous stunts and oversized, hypermasculine personalities. The best ones, I think, lampoon our national obsession with violence and militarism by exaggerating it. If not for the super racist, straight-to-airplane-seat-headrest “Rambo” movie that Stallone just made, I’d say he might actually be one of the great anti-war activists of our time. “The Expendables” encapsulated exactly what I’m talking about here.
Anyway, this is all to say that to lampoon John McClane, whom Bruce Willis already stylized the hell out of, you need to be a macho man’s macho man. You need to be oozing toxic masculinity from every pore. You need to be … Jason Marr, who absolutely nailed it. I thoroughly enjoyed him strutting around in his progressively less white tank top, contorting his jaw in increasingly unlikely ways and nailing all the key one-liners.
Opposite him was Rebecca Olson as Hans Gruber, who did a great job playing the sinister, slick German villain from the original. I particularly enjoyed that every show I saw for this piece had zero interest in matching people’s gender to their characters. Anyone of any gender could play any character of any gender, so long as they were the right person for the job. This made me think that the theater world is maybe a lot further along than Hollywood, where hordes of fans with neckbeards are still furiously typing essays about “retconning” into their phones.
Anyway, this was so good. My neighbor, the innocent bystander, said it was almost sold out, too. Better hurry!
‘Q Brothers Christmas Carol’
ArtsWest Playhouse | $15–$120 | 85 min. | through Dec. 23
Another extremely fun, extremely fast-paced one. I’m not going to lie, I did not elect to go to this production, and I cannot think of anything less likely to get me inside a theater than a rap and reggae remix of Charles Dickens. Like, I get it, you’re updating it, you’re making it cool, but even as someone who predominantly listens to rap, it feels inherently embarrassing. Obviously, I sat out the entire cultural upheaval that was “Hamilton.”
The Chicago-based Q Brothers’ entire thing is kind of “Hamilton”-ing classics, and they’ve been doing “A Christmas Carol” since 2014. It is, according to the program blurb, “a Chicago holiday staple.” Having seen ArtsWest’s version of it, the first to be produced outside the Windy City, I get it now.
First of all, it has been ages since I’ve seen or read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and I forgot that the source material is pretty good. It’s all about putting aside greed and learning to live in community with your fellow man. Frankly, it’s an anti-capitalist text. Or, at the very least, it’s anti-the-worst-parts-of-capitalism, like individualism. Sadly, rap has strayed a long way from its subversive roots — probably starting somewhere around when Master P put a gold-plated tank in one of his videos — but it does share some anti-establishment sentiments with our boy Dickens. And, as it turns out, they work pretty well together.
The Q Brothers’ version of the classic tale is very much a musical, and the music does not stop the entire time. There are interludes of dialogue, but they’re exceedingly brief.
And that’s great, because the four-member cast absolutely kills it on the mic. Christopher Kehoe was the only constant casting, as Ebenezer Scrooge. With that much command of facial expression, Scrooge’s greed and eventual sorrow filled the theater like a miasma.
Everyone else bounced around roles (I think partly to give time to breathe before their next verse), which is why I say theater looks exhausting. I cannot imagine changing outfits, wigs and accents and then belting out a reggae tune while being pushed around stage in a shopping cart as the ghost of Jacob Marley, but I’m glad someone else felt compelled to do it. I’m also glad they had Dre Anderson do it, because the one thing I was really dreading was the possibility of seeing a white actor do a Jamaican accent.
There was one hitch, which was that a section of Scrooge’s initial rap — which, to be fair, was intended to establish him as a cold and uncaring kind of guy — was really derisive towards people addicted to crack and people experiencing homelessness. It’s not so much that Scrooge equated charity with making unhoused people chase around vials of crack, it’s that the rap depended on the drug — and specifically the term “crackhead” — as immediately recognizable symbols of worthlessness and degeneracy.
I wonder what the Q Brothers themselves would say, had they known that one of their guests — who thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the show, by the way — was a semi-regular crack user.
“Things are different in Chicago, I guess,” that guest later speculated, but I, for one, would like the way we treat active drug users everywhere to be a little different.
‘Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker’
Triple Door | $70–$110 | 90 min. | through Dec. 30
OK, so it turns out I’ve never been to a burlesque show before. I assumed that in nearly two decades of legal adulthood I would have and had maybe just memory-holed it, but no. I filed this show in my head as “the horny Nutcracker one,” which demonstrates about how much I knew about the particulars of burlesque going into it. Thankfully, my plus one was a little more experienced and explained the premise. According to her, it’s something like a striptease with a heavy emphasis on the tease and has pretty much the same elements as a musical, but with more pasties. I’ll admit, I was more than a bit curious to see how they would adapt a children’s play to those parameters, but they pulled it off.
None of the stuff you associate with little kids was ever really on stage. The dances were mostly drawn from the original’s second act, where the Nutcracker takes Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets to chill and watch performances by animated dolls (all presumably adults) for the rest of it, which helped. As for those dances, they were wild. Not so much in a sexy way but in a physically impressive way. I don’t know if being a little steampunk and old-timey is part of the whole burlesque thing or if it’s more of a Nutcracker thing, but nothing dampens my fire like the Victorian era.
My own predilections against the most sexually repressed period in history aside, all the performers are extremely hot and extremely talented. That’s evident in every single number, but I have to let my hair down a little here and say that both the Rat King dance and the coffee dance did make me feel some type of way.
A better writer than myself introduced me to the concept of “duende” — “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical,” per the concept’s chronicler Christopher Maurer — several years ago, and I’ve come to believe that it’s kind of the secret ingredient in everything that we think is sexy. Duende is a mashing together of Spanish words, and the notion of it harkens back to an old Iberian folktale about a small humanoid spirit that causes mischief and mayhem. That rakish spirit was definitely present in both of those numbers. This play was also a gender-role-free zone, with performers of all different genders and bodies presenting as men, women, fairies, rats and everything else you can be in “The Nutcracker” universe. That’s definitely duende.
Long story short, “horny Nutcracker” was a hell of a good time. Not a sentence I ever thought I’d be writing, but, hey, life is all about experiences. As far as Christmas theater experiences go, this was absolutely one worth having.
Read more of the Dec. 14-20, 2022 issue.