It's a Wonderful Life
Surely, At This Time of Year, Life Must Be Wonderful For Someone, Right?
Explorations of the proverbial "Christmas spirit" are annoyingly condescending and clichéd come the week before Dec. 25, as every media option--in print, television, radio, and billboard and poster ads--shoves some artificial brand of holiday cheer and goodwill toward man down your throat. It's to the Single Carrot Theatre's credit that not only has it staged a production that directly addresses the shopworn themes of this time of year, but the local company does so without making you want to roll your eyes or feel like you'd rather be, you know, eating glass. In fact, it's a funny, witty, smart, and unexpectedly effective production.
It's not an easy row, though, and therein lies its gift. Single Carrot's holiday production is La Muñeca, company member Aldo Pantoja's adaptation of the titular poem by Spanish writer Vital Aza. And though it includes some holiday staples--a down-on-her luck orphan just wanting a gift for Christmas, people learning firsthand about the holiday spirit, traditional carols, etc.--it isn't your usual feel-good holiday experience. It's more in line with They Shoot Horses, Don't They?--only with some really lighthearted moments and comical singing thrown in for good measure.
This balance between the comic and tragic is what's most impressive about Muñeca. The essentially one-act play is broken down into 10 breezy scenes, starting on the morning of Dec. 24, moving to Christmas Day, and then flashing back to Dec. 23. Each scene is quasi-introduced/demarcated by a terse, soundless video played on one of two TV sets that bracket the stage on the third floor of Load of Fun. Set designer Joey Bromfield constructed a single stage that serves as a city street, a couple's apartment, and a mood-setting interactive space. Against the back wall is Raymundo's Toys, where its namesake owner (Mardee Bennett) hopes to clear enough on Christmas Eve to buy an expensive gift for Rosemary (Genevieve de Mahy). Bromfield himself sits on the edge of the stage playing an electric bass, sometimes providing musical accompaniment for the singers, sometimes merely setting a slowcore mood. He's dressed in the bric-a-brac warmth of a street person. Right behind him, to one side of the storefront, is a large graffiti mural that reads apathy. It's not exactly subtle, but it lends a necessary sense of the inner city to the set; the rush of traffic and ambulance and police sirens drifting in from North Avenue help, too.
The play opens on five transients waking up in front of Raymundo's: a chorus of Christine Demuth, Richard Goldberg, and Pantoja and young Lucia (Giti Lynn) and her older sister Andrea (Karen Landry). The chorus is a spry touch--Pantoja often narrates a narrative/scene-setting line, presumably from the source poem, in Spanish. The English translation then appears on one of the TV sets and is recited by either Demuth or Goldberg. The trio also sings Christmas carols on the set's street--not as mere interludes but as tone-shifting leitmotifs, including one thrilling malapropism-laden mash-up of three or four different carols that becomes a ribald mess of a good time.
Bringing such funny is welcome; otherwise Muñeca might be too sober to handle. On the morning of Dec. 24 Lucia wakes up shoeless and cold and tries to rouse her sister; Andrea isn't getting up. Raymundo arrives to open his store, and Lucia pesters him to help; he calls for an ambulance and the police, but Lucia flees before the authorities arrive.
And while, yes, you start to see just where this is going right about now, Single Carrot takes you there briskly and refreshingly never takes the maudlin or sarcastic way out. Credit Lynn and Bennett for that deft touch; as the play's principal players they bear the brunt of selling the story's emotional ups and downs. Lynn especially--and thankfully--doesn't overact Lucia's youth, settling on a nasally impudence and sincere performance that doesn't feel like an adult woman infantilizing herself for a role. Which is key to the story's path: Lucia only has eyes for the most expensive doll in Raymundo's shop window--the "muñeca" of the title--although she doesn't have the money to buy it, money that would help Raymundo purchase Rosemary's gift. The play's most winning touch is that, in the end, everybody gets what they want--although nobody feels good about it at all.
La Muñeca is ideally set up by the pre-performance staged reading of Gabriel García Márquez's short story "The Light Is Like Water," which Single Carrot turns into a game bit of human shadow puppetry. Like Muñeca, it's a funny bit of tragedy, gamely setting up its story's deep loss in magical, entertaining flourishes. It's what Single Carrot does with La Muñeca--aim for something heavy by taking you there with a smile. H
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