Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
December 6, 2013
The classic Christmas story, “The Gift of the Magi,” is all about sacrifice in the name of love. In O. Henry’s timeless tale, what each member of a cash-strapped couple gives up is an ironic match: he buys her combs; she’s sold her hair to buy him a watch fob; but he’s sold the watch to buy her combs.
In playwright Stephen Metcalfe’s update, “The Gift Teller,” the sacrifices don’t match up. The girl, a budding actress, still sells her hair –to buy an expensive lens for her boyfriend’s cherished, inherited camera. The guy has gone and sold the beloved camera – but what he buys her is two tickets to London, to perform in the play he’d begged her not to go to, despite her ecstasy over nailing an audition at last. This disrupts the perfect symmetry and sweet irony of the original.
The structure here involves a narrator, the titular gift-teller ostensibly, who moves in and out of the action, in the style of “The Fantasticks ,” with a similarly simple array of props and settings. Though this feels like a time-worn trope, it does give the audience an opportunity to see Todd Blakesley , an unfailingly natural, credible performer, assume a range of characters and accents – from an Orthodox Jewish jeweler to a British director; a homeless man to a New England curmudgeon. Blakesley is the highlight of the show, though we could do without the playwright’s requirement that he tell us what he’s going to do before he does it.
The rest of the cast at Scripps Ranch Theatre — fresh-faced young actors Tatiana Mac, Virginia Gregg, Eric Parmer and Matt Murphy –play somewhat vapid, occasionally snarky, budding — and starving — New York artists, even though the central male, has a well-to-do, if crotchety and cantankerous dad, whom Blakesley imbues with an edge and a heart.
Sometimes-silly projections accompany various factoids about the origin of Christmas, Santa and elves. One point isn’t even accurate. Coca Cola was not, in fact, the first to use a red-cheeked, white bearded plump guy as the image of Santa Claus. That distinction belongs to political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Lisa Berger, always an imaginative director, tries to add all kinds of enhancements, from projections to shadow puppets to silhouettes, and a moving neon chiron counting down the days to Christmas. Not all of them work, but the excellent onstage guitarist, Bob Giesick , takes us seamlessly from one carol to the next – somewhat more smoothly than the spasmodic shifts of scene and emotion. At the end, we get cliché encomiums about the holiday, its spirit and its symbology . One uncredited fact grabbed my attention: 7 out of 10 children prefer Halloween to Christmas. Sounds like a good theatrical idea!
“The Gift Teller” runs through December 8, at Scripps Ranch Theatre, on the campus of Alliant University.
©2013 PAT LAUNER