By Karen Isaacs
Christmas on the Rocks has become a holiday staple at TheaterWorks. This year it runs through Saturday, December 23; additional performances already have been added.
Why the appeal? At first glance it simply seems like a clever twist that adds a bit of cynicism to the usual holiday fare. But after seeing it several times, I’ve realized that there are hidden depths in these delightful pieces.
Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero called upon a number of playwrights with whom he had worked and gave them a challenge. To write a short scene about whatever happened to some of the classic children characters from various Christmas movies, TV shows and literature. Most of these works ended on an up-beat note. But what really happened afterwards?
The playwrights created a series of short scenes – many of them mainly monologues. And along the way they added in not only humor but lessons of how we go on and how we can always recapture the optimism of youth.
It is set in what is described as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve.” This is your typical run-down neighborhood bar, worn and out of date. The bartender is switching between Christmas films on TV as the bar is empty.
In seven scenes, two talented actors become some of the very well-known children from these stories and occasionally a lesser known character. In the last two years, two of the stories have changed. One original piece, based on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and about Cindy Lou Who, was turned into a longer piece by its playwright Matthew Lombardo and is now playing off-Broadway. It’s been replaced by piece written by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas.
That piece, “My Name is KAREN!” is about the girl who created Frosty and saved him. She’s now a self-involved, angry young woman with her own live internet show. She resents all the attention that Frosty has gotten and her own obscurity. Even on her show, her followers mostly ask questions about Frosty and not her. She has taken her revenge.
New this year is a scene by Connecticut’s own Jacques Lamarre called “A Miserable Life”. You can guess that it is about one of the Bailey children, in this case ZuZu Bailey. It seems that she has been traumatized by the notion that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
John Cariani has written an ironic piece about Ralphie from A Christmas Story while Jeffrey Hatcher has a hysterically funny piece about Hermie, the elf who wanted to be a dentist in the TV version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
In a piece by Theresa Rebeck, we see a cynical Tiny Tim who believes that Scrooge had a mental breakdown; Tim also seems to have adopted some of Scrooge’s miserly attitudes. Then there’s the piece about Clara, from The Nutcracker. She is now an aging beauty still in love with the ageless Nutcracker. And the show ends with a tender piece by Lamarre about Charlie Brown. His revelations are surprising, but the ending is sweet.
Ruggiero has directed this with a sure hand. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkes are returning for the third or fourth year playing all of the famous characters. It is remarkable how they use voices and gestures to create totally different characters. Harris goes from the self-involved Karen, to the neurotic Zuzu and ends as the tender “Little Red-Haired Girl.
Wilkes is funny and over the top as Hermie. After that, you almost don’t recognize him when he is Tiny Tim or later as Charlie Brown.
Tom Bloom has joined the cast this year as the bartender. Like any good bartender, he listens, he reacts and occasionally he adds a succinct comment or suggestion. He is part therapist and part grandfather. It is this character that often helps the others to leave more optimistic than when they came in.
As you leave Christmas on the Rocks, you may ponder the ideas that what we assume will happen often doesn’t, but that other possibilities open to us, if only we will take advantage of them.
This show is geared to adults or near adults.
Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications Weeklies and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Will you like Raging Skillet, the world premiere play by Jacques Lamarre now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, Aug. 27?
Just answer these simple questions:
Does loud rock music split your eardrums?
Does lots of gratuitous four letter words bother you?
Do you think stereotypical, guilt inducing mothers inherently funny?
Does insulting your mother seem acceptable?
If you answered no to the first two and yes to the last two, you should rush out a get tickets to this show about a “celebrity” food writer/caterer who goes by the name of Rossi. Apparently she is well known, though as a dedicated Food Network viewer, I had never heard of her.
The play – with three characters – is based on her “humorous” memoir of the same name, which is also the name of her catering company. The premise is that this is her book launch party and the ghost of her mother shows up. The book is hawked endlessly and, yes, you can buy it on stage after the show.
Chef Rossi, played excellently by Dana Smith-Croll, describes herself as a Jewish, Lesbian, punk rock woman and chef.
She tells stories of her up-bringing in New Jersey where Mom killed food in the microwave. Rossi (her father changed his name from Rosenthal to Ross; she changed it to Rossi, for no stated reason) started cooking what she called Jewish white trash food. What was offered to the audience did not seem particularly interesting though I did not taste it.
She was every parents’ nightmare as a teenager, using various drugs, disobeying rules and eventually running away from home. After being arrested for selling drugs, her parents packed her off to Brooklyn and a home run by a Hasidic Jew for problem causing Jewish teenagers.
Her interest in food continued and when she can she escapes to Manhattan where she becomes first a bartender and then works her way through the various jobs in the kitchen. Obviously, she earned her stripes and has talent because she has received numerous accolades from The New York Times, Zagat, and was named one of The Knot’s best wedding caterers multiple times.
Marilyn Sokol has the unenviable job of playing her mother. She’s been dead for years but returns for the book launch. She combines all the stereotypes of both the Jewish mother – Yiddish flows abundantly – but also of any guilt-inducing ethnic mother. She is the target for her daughter’s humor and anger. Only at the end of the play, when Rossi reads her mother’s “book” does she acknowledge that her mother was an accomplished woman who earned a master’s in mathematics and played violin in a symphony.
The third character is DJ Skillit, Rossi’s sous-chef who plays a number of roles and supposedly controls the often blaring music.
Audience reaction on the official opening night was mixed. Some found the show great fun and hilarious, others said they smiled at some of the jokes while others were pretty much stony faced throughout.
The pluses to this production are the skillful direction by John Simpkins, the set by Michael Schweikardt and the performances.
Smith-Croll has the difficult job of making Rossi likeable but a rebel and, for the most part, she succeeds. At the end, you see some warmth in her and realize that the persona she creates is just that. Marilyn Sokol has a difficult with task playing Mom: she is both passive-aggressive and a stereotype. That Sokol carries it off without the least bit of embarrassment is commendable. At times the role is cringe-inducing. DJ Skillit is less a character than a device, George Salazar does a good job with this amorphous role.
It’s hard to identify the basic problem with this piece. Is it the adaptation by Jacques Lamarre? Or is it the source material? How do you convey Rossi’s image and yet make the audience both like her and identify with her? While Lamarre may be true to Rossi’s “brand” and personality, that doesn’t necessarily create a satisfying work of theater.
The press materials for this production talks about the play as an “compelling story about a mother and a daughter and the commitment to family.” Somehow that does not come through strongly enough.
Raging Skillet, may be a play that younger audiences may be more receptive to and enjoy both her and her story more.
Given the language used, this is not a piece for children, nor those with sensitive ears. Older people may find the Rossi’s comments to and attitude towards her mother distressing.
Yet, it has fine performances. I did not love this work, but you might. Perhaps a glass or two of wine before the show would increase the enjoyment factor.
Raging Skillet is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Harford, through Sunday, Aug. 27. For tickets. Call 860-527-7838.
Content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Three years ago, Rob Ruggiero, artistic director of TheaterWorks in Hartford, had a brilliant idea for an adult holiday show: a series of sketches featuring the adult versions of those kids that won our hearts in holiday stories and movies. This year it is returning through Wednesday, Dec. 23.
So he enlisted seven contemporary playwrights with connections to the theater, to write the sketches. The setting? “A local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve” the program tells us.
We have the requisite elderly bartender who listens carefully and occasionally responds.
Who wanders into this bar? The characters that “became real” because we have loved them so. Each is now an adult and each life has taken some unexpected turns. The pieces themselves range from heartfelt to farcical but each is in keeping with the original work for which it is a sequel.
Some of the characters are less easily recognizable. I heard some audience members checking with neighbors about the second playlet: this one features Susan, the daughter in the movie Miracle on 34th Street. Those who know the film will recognize the subtle references to the film that Jonathan Tolins incorporated including the house on Primrose Street, but Susan is perhaps the least familiar character. Yet, this one is touching as Susan reveals to the bartender, played by Ronn Carroll in his third year in the role, how she has become almost a replica of her mother – guarded, untrusting, demanding.
The show opens with “All Grown Up” which gives us one of the most iconic holiday characters: Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Here the adult Ralph reveals not only what happen to the Old Man and his mother but also to him.
The third and fourth playlets are more broadly comical: “Say It Glows” features an obviously gay Herbie the Elf from the TV animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Herbie dishes the dirt about Rudolph and how Herbie got some revenge but also suffered.
Following Herbie is “Going Green” featuring Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas which Matthew Lombard has written in Seussical rhyme. Cindy Lou is disheveled and possibly alcoholic. Her life is a mess.
Tiny Tim appears – does anyone need to be reminded of the work he appeared in? – looking like a Victorian London street person. He has become cynical, and talks of Scrooge’s “psychotic break.”
Maria from The Nutcracker arrives next in a scene by Edwin Sánchez. Her life is also a mess. She is attempting to stay young for her never aging, handsome nutcracker prince who seems attracted to her brother. She projects a desperateness as she sits at the bar, drinking vodka and crushing peanuts with nutcrackers.
The evening ends with a sweet piece by Jacques Lamarre (of Hartford) about Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. It is the only piece where all three cast members are together on stage. This has always been my favorite piece, striking just the right combination of humor and pathos that was so much a part of Peanuts.
I was particularly impressed this year with Ronn Carroll as the bartender. Each year he has deepened his performance. As he listens to these stories, his reactions fit perfectly – uncomfortable as Herbie makes a move on him, irritation as Clara keeps making jokes about his age. He delivers his comments and often sage advice with warmth and gentleness. He cares!
Matthew Wilkas is new to the male roles, yet he bring his own style to each character. I found his Herbie more physical than last year but my memory may be faulty. I enjoyed his physicality as he jumps on bar stools and the bar itself and strokes the bartender, to his obvious discomfort.
Jenn Harris is returning as the women in the piece. Two of these women – Cindy Lou Who and Clara – are broader characters and more obviously dysfunctional than the male characters. She is comfortable with the broader comedy and makes Cindy Lou Who really slutty. But I was most taken with her performance as the red-haired girl in the last scene.
Rob Ruggiero has directed this with great talent – each scene moves and none go on too long.
A quick warning: This is not for children or perhaps even younger teens. The humor sometimes involves sexual references and the idea that even some of these iconic families end with divorce and unhappiness might be disturbing. Last year, though, my 13-year-old granddaughter did enjoy it.
What is particularly nice about these playlet is that while each of the characters has problems and may be cynical about the holiday season, each leaves the bar with renewed hope thanks to the bartender.
So if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Cindy Lou Who, or did the fairy tale of Maria and the Nutcracker end happily or even if you wondered about Ralphie, his BB gun and his family, you will find Christmas on the Rocks an enjoyable 90 minutes.
Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Wednesday, Dec. 23. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.