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Hells Belles

An over the top Christmas show feels like too much, too soon

Laura Gifford and Patrick Martyn yuk it up.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/4/2009

Christmas Belles

By Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten

Through Nov. 22 at Vagabond Players

It was jarring to hear Christmas carols on a Sunday afternoon in October. Even the woman handing out tickets at Vagabond seemed perplexed by it. "What are we listening to?" she asked of the holiday classics permeating the tiny lobby. "Oh, right, it's Christmas." And if thinking about Christmas before Halloween doesn't make you about as full of holiday cheer as a pre-supernatural intervention Scrooge, this over-the-top comedy should do it.

One in a series of comedies based in the South by writing trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, Christmas Belles has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the knees. The characters lack dimension and the scenarios are silly for silliness' sake. The whole thing is basically a cartoon. The playwrights' web site features a quote from the Wilson Daily Times that reads, "Neil Simon is going to have to work overtime to stay ahead of Jones, Hope and Wooten," but the 82-year-old playwright has nothing to worry about. Fortunately, an energetic cast and an appreciative audience keep Christmas Belles from being a lost cause.

Every year, the people of Fayro, Tex., put on a Christmas pageant. For the last 27 years, it's been directed by Geneva (Natalia Chávez Leimkuhler), the town's florist and Greyhound operator. But this year, Fayro's aging trollop, Honey Raye Futrelle (Maribeth Vogel Eckenrode) has taken over the show and promises to infuse it with new ideas, such as a fourth wise man (who happens to be a woman and a local TV personality) and having Elvis stop by the manger.

Meanwhile, Honey's sisters have problems of their own. Frankie is overdue with twins--about two years overdue judging by the enormous stuffed belly actress Stephanie Ranno is saddled with--and is struggling with a big secret. Twink (Laura Gifford) is in jail for setting fire to her ex-boyfriend's NASCAR memorabilia collection and, inadvertently, much of Fayro.

If that isn't enough, Frankie's husband Dub (Roger Schulman), who is moonlighting as Santa to make money to raise the twins, is passing a gallstone. Frankie's daughter Gina Jo (Karin Crighton) is avoiding her boyfriend Justin (Tom Burns), who is trying to propose. And Honey and Twink refuse to accept Frankie's new friend, Rhonda Lynn (Joan Crooks). There's also a "slow" boy in the pageant, who pushes a red wagon even though he's a shepherd and continually spouts the catch phrase "I just love Christmas," even as the holiday becomes a nightmare, and a town meany who thinks the Futrelles are trash and relishes telling them so.

That the actors commit so thoroughly to this trifle is a testament to their skill. Ranno provides a pleasantly grounded performance amid the zaniness. And Schulman shows real tenderness as her husband when he's not saddled with gallstone labor pains. Crooks is undeniably sweet as the over-eager Rhonda Lynn and Burns brings real charisma to hapless Justin. Ryan Patrick as wagon boy Raynerd and Trish Bentz as the snobby Patsy Price don't fair as well, giving stiff performances.

But if one person is at fault for this lackluster production it has to be director John W. Ford. Not only did he decide to take on this lemon--in the director's notes he asks the audience to watch the show through "rose-colored glass"--but his direction was downright bad. There was barely any movement at all during the scenes. Actors would often stand essentially in a row delivering their lines. The lack of motion drained energy from a production that is totally dependent on it and made it feel even less natural than the goofy zingers and ridiculous characters would on their own.

To be fair, the audience ate Christmas Belles up. They guffawed through the entire performance. Much of the credit for that is due the actors, who sold every slapstick scenario and cringe-worthy line. And their charms almost make the Futrelles a family worth getting to know. Almost.

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