"And so, as Tiny Tim observed…" — The Holiday Season at the ASC

Staunton’s a winter wonderland today, coated in a thick blanket of snow, which makes it feel like just the right time to share my thoughts on the ASC’s holiday season with you. Each December, the ASC embraces wintry celebrations, and we guarantee there’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a joyful family outing or are hoping for some more grown-up entertainment. Either way, the holiday spirit is alive and well in Staunton, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three of our December productions.

First up is the family-friendly A Christmas Carol, which the ASC has produced every year since 2002. The production is frothy and delightful. The ASC touring troupe does a wonderful job bringing the exuberant spirit of the show to life. Maybe I’m just an incurable sap, but I can’t help wanting to dance at the Fezziwigs’ party, and I always tear up about Tiny Tim at the end of the show. But if you can’t indulge a sentimental nature during the holiday season, when can you? I got to watch this show during one of our school matinees, and it was a great day for it — we had a younger group, 3rd-5th graders, and I had almost as much fun watching them as I did watching the show. The girls sitting on stage shrieked and clutched at each other when the ghost of Jacob Marley emerged from the trap, rattling chains and howling in agony — and the little boy sitting next to them leaned so far forward he nearly fell out of his seat, exclaiming “That was awesome!” when Marley descended again. The kids were delighted by the frequent interactions of the cast with the audience, whether to use them as hat-racks or scarf-holders, or as the recipients of the candy canes that the Narrator (Chad Bradford) whips out of his hat as though by magic. Something about the enthrallment of little kids makes this show even more special; it’s a different experience, and just that little bit more magical.

For me, A Christmas Carol took on a new tenor this holiday season, in light of the economic difficulties so many people have faced over the past year and more. When Scrooge (presented with scowling excellence by John Harrell) asks “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” or when he calls the unemployed “idle people,” it’s hard not to hear echoes of the recent debates over tax breaks and unemployment benefits. Of course, all of that is likely to sail right over the heads of the children in the audience, but adults may find Dickens’s classic more relevant than ever.

Second, an annual favorite, the adults-only Santaland Diaries. This year Rick Blunt hitches up the candy-cane stockings as Crumpet the Elf in David Sedaris’s one-man-show about the experience of being an elf at Macy’s Santaland. I got to watch John Harrell in this role the past two years, and with Rick in the elfin knickers, it’s definitely a different show. Rick inhabits the role with self-mocking glee, shamelessly changing into his elf costume on stage and, the night I saw it, pausing mid-monologue once to hike up those striped stockings. Particularly excellent is Rick’s way of playing off of the audience, incorporating them and their reactions into the story. What I’ve always loved about this show, however, and what Rick brings across particularly well, is the kernel of tenderness underneath all the cynicism and biting wit. The contrast particularly relevant for the modern holiday season, over-commercialized in a period of recession, when so many people feel the pinch even more tightly than during the rest of the year, when it’s become “cool” in plenty of circles to eschew the saccharine celebrations and settle in for a good snarking instead. Amid all of that, it’s nice to be reminded, through Rick’s excellent performance, of the real holiday spirit, the desire to make someone smile, to make someone feel special.

Finally, the ASC is pleased and proud to offer the world premiere of The 12 Dates of Christmas, written by and starring our own Ginna Hoben. Based off of her own experiences, Ginna presents the story of Mary, a woman who sees her fiance making out with a coworker on national TV during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The audience follows her through a year’s worth of bad dates and family feuds. The show is refreshingly honest. The sparkle may be off the snowflake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at the absurd way that life falls apart, falls together, and constantly reassembles — because Mary’s experiences are, while idiosyncratic tales particular to one woman’s life, also universal. Almost everyone’s suffered a heartbreak, often a humiliating one. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to face a holiday, whether Christmas or New Year’s or Valentine’s Day, alone. That association we all share, combined with Ginna’s open and inviting demeanor, makes it easy for the audience to relate to Mary, to want to cheer her on and to see her succeed. Ginna also uses the audience to wonderful effect, calling out for advice, looking for sympathy or agreement, or cocking an ironic eyebrow whenever we think we know where the story is going. I think what I like best about the show, however, is that it doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow. Mary’s story is going to go on, offstage, post-monologue — and that’s real. Life’s major events and excursions rarely end on neat little capstones.

All three of these shows continue through the end of the month, so you’ve still got plenty of opportunities to catch them if you’re within traveling distance. And lest you think that the ASC becomes a Shakespeare-free-zone during the holiday season, the touring troupe will also be giving performances of their three traveling shows, Macbeth, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure, during the first week in January.