A high-speed tour of the classics
GLOUCESTER — They start to arrive every year around this time, as inevitable as fruitcake and sometimes just as stale: stage productions of “A Christmas Carol.’’
So ubiquitous are Scrooge and Tiny Tim and those didactic ghosts that even fans of Charles Dickens may empathize with the character, portraying an actor in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!),’’ who suddenly halts a performance of You-Know-What and declares: “I can’t do this. I can’t do another ‘Christmas Carol.’ . . . [I]t’s been done to death!’’
So the actor and his two costars decide to whip together a show that draws from a host of other holiday stories and TV specials. Soon they are racing through bits of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,’’ “A Charlie Brown Christmas,’’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’’ “The Gift of the Magi,’’ and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’’ (although, to avoid copyright violations, the trio renames it “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Reingoat’’). The trio does ultimately present a version of “A Christmas Carol,’’ but it somehow turns into a chaotic mashup of “Carol’’ and “It’s a Wonderful Life.’’
“This is something writers have done throughout history,’’ points out Allison Benko, who will direct “Every Christmas Story Ever Told’’ at Gloucester Stage Dec. 3-20. “You satirize something, so you get to straddle both worlds. It’s taking your cultural heritage and engaging with it.’’
Indeed, by now there’s practically an anti-tradition tradition of works whose approach to the holiday and its traditions is cheeky, irreverent, and sometimes edgy, tapping into our simultaneous affection for and weariness with the old standbys. It’s a way for theater companies to avoid doing the same old thing while still grabbing a chunk of the holiday theatergoing audience.
Alternate takes on the Yuletide season range from “The Santaland Diaries’’ to “The Slutcracker’’ to “A Tuna Christmas,’’ in which one subplot involves a character’s battle to stage . . . “A Christmas Carol.’’ Here in Boston, theatrical sendup artist Ryan Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans have presented a series of raunchy holiday-themed spoofs that have included “How Mrs. Grinchley Swiped Christmas,’’ “Mrs. Grinchley’s Christmas Carol,’’ “It’s a Horrible Life,’’ last year’s “Jesus Christ, It’s Christmas!,’’ and Landry’s latest, “A Little Orphan Tranny Christmas,’’ which opens Dec. 3.
Written by John K. Alvarez, Michael Carleton, and Jim FitzGerald, with original music by Will Knapp, “Every Christmas Story Ever Told’’ breaks the fourth wall to enlist audience participation. Some of the show’s pop-culture references will be updated in Gloucester. For instance, Benko says she’s considering changing an ’N Sync reference to One Direction. She can envision incorporating a joke about, who else, Donald Trump. A shout-out to Gloucester Stage founding artistic director Israel Horovitz is also a possibility.
Starring Arthur Gomez, Brady Adair, and Suzan Perry (who plays Sonja in Tina Fey’s Netflix series, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’’), the Gloucester Stage production represents the professional directing debut for Benko, a 22-year-old native of Fairfield, Conn., who graduated from Tufts University this year and is the company’s directing apprentice.
Also notching a first will be set designer Rogin Farrer, who grew up in Ashland, is newly graduated from Vassar College, and has spent much of his apprenticeship in scenic design at Gloucester Stage helping to build the sets of other designers. “After so many months of being the worker bee, I’m looking forward to building my own world,’’ says Farrer, 22.
Benko began her theater training as an actress, but once she tried her hand at directing, she was hooked. Her immediate reaction to directing, she says, was: “Oh, this is what I like.’’ Why? “It’s big picture,’’ says Benko. “It’s like being a painter as opposed to the paint.’’ Having helmed a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night’’ at Tufts, Benko believes she can handle the pell-mell pace of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told.’’
“It’s a challenge, because we have to portray more than a dozen different Christmas stories and ideas in two hours,’’ says Benko. “But it’s a really good piece for me. I’m interested in this idea of breaking out of convention.’’
So ubiquitous were Christmas-themed TV specials, movies, and stories when she was growing up, Benko says, that “I’m able to culturally connect with Christmas even though I’m Jewish.’’ She concedes, though, that there are a couple of holes in her knowledge. “I’m doing my dramaturgical research,’’ she says with a laugh. “First on my list is to see ‘Rudolph.’ ”
EVERY CHRISTMAS STORY EVER TOLD (AND THEN SOME!)
At Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester. Dec. 3-20. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com