December 16 - August 31, $75 for six-play subscription
One of my best friends has a habit of shopping for all his holiday presents on Christmas Eve. This year, because of the pandemic lockdown, he chose to stay out of stores and, like so much of America, bought everything online. But for him and everyone else who missed the joy of wandering through aisles of chains and indies, fighting off other customers for that last coveted item on that quickly emptying shelf, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company has gifted us with Wally World, a two-part audio-play soap opera that takes place in a big-box store on a long December 24. “Everybody’s happy on Christmas Eve,” not-so-nice manager Andy (Sandra Marquez) insists. Well, maybe not.
Wally World offers that last-minute-shopping experience as we eavesdrop on Andy, co-managers Amy (Audrey Francis) and Mark (Cliff Chamberlain), assistant managers Estelle (Jacqueline Williams), Ariadna (Sydney Charles), Jax (Kevin Curtis), Janie (Karen Rodriguez), Miguel (Marvin Quijada), and Dan (Danny Bernardo), and sales associate Karla (Leslie Sophia Perez), who get involved in all sorts of intrigue, from secret liaisons to juicy gossip, from karaoke Christmas songs to sexual harassment and a seizure. Writer-director Isaac Gómez and codirector Lili-Anne Brown take us around every nook and cranny in the store as the employees discuss personal and professional disappointment, their ancestry, a shooting at another location, vibrators, and how to correctly stack palettes. They also make some funny and unfortunate announcements over the PA system. “I fucking hate Barbies,” Andy admits accidentally. “If you need to defecate, please do so in one of our two bathrooms,” Mark points out. An accompanying guide helps identify each character, including their name, age, position, ethnicity, and zodiac sign; several are from US-Mexican border towns, as is Gómez (La Ruta, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter).
Originally commissioned and developed through the Sideshow Theatre Company Freshness Initiative and presented in a developmental workshop at a Texas festival in 2018, Wally World may not be about the pandemic, but it’s right for this moment, capturing that feeling we are all missing: Being around other people, whether random strangers or essential workers, during the holiday season. Shopping online and seeing family over Zoom is not quite the same thing. To maintain the holiday spirit, Christmas music can be heard throughout the show; you can listen to the Spotify playlist here, with songs by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Michael Bublé, Ariana Grande, Sara Bareilles, Eartha Kitt, Kelly Clarkson, Sia, Kacey Musgraves, John Legend, and Mariah Carey. To get the audio just right, sound designer Aaron Stephenson visited a superstore with a recorder and, wearing a mask, taped different places and sound sources, from the bathroom and the checkout counter to walkie-talkies and the overhead speakers, making it feel like you’re moving through distinct spaces, which he describes in “Hearing the Snow Falling: A Glimpse into the Sound Design in Wally World.”
“It’s a play about my mom,” Gómez, who calls the show his “Walmart Chekhov,” says in the above conversation with Rodriguez and Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro. “My mom’s worked at Walmart for twenty-five years and has worked her way up from cashier to assistant department manager of lingerie to department manager of ladies wear to assistant manager to co-manager and to now store manager at one of the largest retail-focused Walmarts in the country, which is a huge deal. And her Walmart is situated right off of one of the border-crossing bridges, so the majority of her customers are not just from El Paso; they’re also from Juárez. I think there’s something prolific and beautiful and meaningful about these everyday people who had, and have, lives that are deeper beyond our understanding. . . . What brings them all together is a profound loneliness that I think so many of us share, and what connects them is that they feel less lonely when they’re together.”
An ensemble piece that feels like an inclusive group effort, that doesn’t feel like it was recorded with everyone facing separate cameras and showing up in separate Zoom boxes from wherever they’re sheltering in place, Wally World — named after the closed theme park that the Griswolds are driving to in National Lampoon’s Vacation — also takes us away from the screens we are all addicted to, especially during this health crisis, and encourages our imaginations to transport us into a public place where we are less lonely, making connections that bring us together. And that’s a present we all can use as 2020 finally comes to an end.
Who: Prospect Theater Company
What: Final film in Vision series
Where: Prospect Theater Company YouTube channel
When: Wednesday, December 30, free, 7:00
Why: Prospect Theater Company concludes its Vision series, consisting of new musical theater pieces on film, with Don’t Stay Safe, a short work with book and lyrics by Cheryl L. Davis and music by Douglas J. Cohen, featuring Iris Beaumier, Latoya Edwards, and Nygel D. Robinson. A companion to Davis and Cohen’s full-length 2016 musical Bridges, about a multiracial family fighting for racial equality and LGBTQ rights from 1965 to 2008, Don’t Stay Safe follows three people as they deal with similar issues in 2020, when the world changed. The December 30 premiere of the fifteen-minute film, which was directed by Christina Franklin at the West End Theatre, with music direction by John Bronston and cinematography by Lesley Steele, will be followed by a live Q&A with members of the cast and crew.
Woolly Mammoth and PlayCo’s This Is Who I Am is the best play created during the pandemic that is not specifically about the pandemic. Presented in association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s poignant, exquisitely told seventy-minute Zoom work is a treat for all five senses while exploring such issues as love, loss, loneliness, grief, memory, and distance, so much a part of our life amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Zuabi, who was raised in Palestine, was the associate director of Young Vic London for eight years, and is now artistic director of the ShiberHur theater in Haifa, set his 2013 site-specific show, Oh My Sweet Land, in kitchens in real apartments, where small audiences would cram in and watch a woman cook while telling stories about Syrian refugees; everyone was handed a delicacy she made on the way out. This Is Who I Am also takes place in real kitchens, but in this case belonging to two actors portraying an estranged father and son reconnecting over Zoom; you might not get a bite of the spinach-and-onion-stuffed dumpling-like peasant dish known as fteer that they make together, but you will feel as if you can touch, smell, and taste it, in addition to watching and listening to their intimate, heart-tugging conversation. (However, you will get the recipe so you can prepare it yourself in your own kitchen.)
The father (Ramsey Faragallah) is Zooming in from his home in Ramallah, while the son (Yousof Sultani) is in New York, having left the West Bank city years ago to become an art curator, a job his manly, hardworking father fails to understand. As they go step-by-step through the recipe of their late wife/mother’s favorite dish, they talk about the past and delve deep into their relationship, which changed drastically during her prolonged illness. “She used to make such incredible food. Why this, why fteer?” the son asks. “It was the first thing she prepared for me,” the father replies. “She said to me, ‘This is who I am. I am a pocketful of surprises.’”
As they add the ingredients, the differences between them are revealed not only through the dialogue but by how they are making the dish. While the son uses modern utensils and measures everything precisely, the father uses his fingers and judgment with the salt and the sumac, the onions and the yeast. “You were always a horrible cook,” the son says, as if referring to his role as a father as well. The father declares that his lentil soup is to die for, which leads the son to quip, “Death is definitely one of the consequences that can occur as a result of your lentil soup.”
Making fteer together leads them to “fill the gaps” of their lives. When they brush on the olive oil, they remember the olive trees of Ramallah; where the father waxes poetic about the beauty, culture, tradition, and sustenance they represent, the son recalls that the “trees are drenched in blood. They live in a land that had so many people claim it, so many people die for it. You walk around those trees and you feel the reverence of history; I walk around those trees and I hear the shouts of slaughtered men that had to sacrifice themselves to keep it.” When the son insists that water has to be lukewarm, considering it a “safe” temperature, the father interprets that as his son yet again taking the easy way out, not going for the extremes of hot and cold. As they reach the end of the preparation and get ready to place the food in the oven, their topics grow ever-more-serious, with accusations and condemnations being squeezed out like the juice of a lemon, tart and bitter.
Turkish immigrant Evren Odcikin (When My Mama Was a Hittite, Nine Parts of Desire), the associate artistic director at OSF, directs the show with a natural, realistic grace, keeping the actors onscreen the entire time, next to each other in static boxes without camera movement, close-ups, or cuts; we’ve all been part of so many Zoom calls with friends and family and watched a multitude of live, online cooking programs that it’s easy to forget that this is a play and that the two men are fictional constructions. Instead, you’re likely to feel that you’re eavesdropping on an intensely private moment between two complex individuals as they intimately discuss trust, fear, memory, choice, disappointment, and what makes a person a hero.
LA-born actor, writer, and teacher Faragallah (The Profane, Homeland) and Northern Virginia native Sultani (Heartland, Photograph 51) are marvelous as father and son, fully embodying their characters just as the dish they are making brings their wife/mother to life. Faragallah portrays the strong and stalwart father with a tender vulnerability that is deeply affecting, while the handsome, hirsute Sultani is sensitive and authentic as the seemingly intractable, unyielding son who is harboring a critical secret. Just follow the movement of their eyes; they might not be in the same room, but their innate attachment is palpable.
In October, Woolly Mammoth’s Woolly on Demand season kicked off with Telephonic Literary Union’s fun Human Resources, which took place completely over the phone as a “choose your own adventure” series of prerecorded messages. This Is Who I Am comes to us live, in real time, via cameras in the actors’ homes in an honest, intrinsically human story that captures who we are and what we are facing without ever mentioning the pandemic we are suffering through; it’s a timeless story whose time is now, for people everywhere.
(This Is Who I Am continues through January 3; tickets are $15.99 for one and $30.99 for a household. On January 2, you can take part in a postshow community meetup hosted by A.R.T. with the Boston Palestine Film Festival by registering here. It’s also worth checking out the archived December 20 virtual panel discussion “Story as Resistance: The Joys, the Heartbreak, and the Food.”)
“What is sanctuary? Is it a place? Is it a feeling? A state of being?” a narrator asks near the start of Sanctuary, an immersive audio soundwalk about the historic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Working Theater’s Five Boroughs/One City Initiative began with Adam Kraar’s Alternating Currents in Queens and includes Liba Vaynberg and Dina Vovsi’s The Only Ones and Ed Cardona Jr.’s Bamboo in Bushwick in Brooklyn, Dan Hoyle’s The Block in the Bronx, and Chisa Hutchinson’s Breaking Bread in Staten Island. It returns to Manhattan with Sanctuary, a forty-eight-minute
piece that has been in progress since 2015 and is now available for free download through December 31. It is not a guided tour of the cathedral but instead is a spiritual (and secular) journey that you can experience at home. (In 2013, Working Theater staged La Ruta, an immersive play about illegal immigration, set in a truck outside the cathedral.)
Sanctuary was created by Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone of Storyline and developed with and directed by Working Theater associate artistic director Rebecca Martinez, with original devotional music by Broken Chord, recorded in the cathedral’s nave on the Duke Ellington grand piano. The soundwalk welcomes listeners into the diverse cathedral community, consisting of people who work there, visit regularly, have celebrated special occasions there, or turned to the cathedral at times of hardship or joy. Participants discuss immigration, a blue heron, 9/11, gay marriage, gardening, depression, letting go, healing, and rebuilding, accompanied by the sounds of footsteps, nature, a helicopter, sirens, and a door opening.
“We are unfinished,” one person says. A man adds, “The amount of grief that we have seems to be insurmountable. We mourn partly because so much of what we called normal is gone, and yet, we persevere.” The narrator asks, “Do we ever get where we’re going? If we arrive, are we here?”
The cathedral has been providing sanctuary since the late nineteenth century; construction by architects George Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge began in 1892, and the first services were held there in a chapel of the crypt in 1899. The cathedral is an Episcopal church that doesn’t discriminate on any basis; in fact, it falls right in line with New York’s decision to become a sanctuary city in 2020, as delineated by Manhattan Community Board 10 here.
Sanctuary expounds on the cathedral being a revered safe space, both physically and psychologically, not only during the pandemic, but at all times. It is currently open for free to visitors; timed tickets are strongly encouraged. “What is the path you’re on?” the narrator asks. Any path leading to the historic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is one that is worth taking.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
The Old Vic, London
Through December 24, £10-£65
For its fourth “In Camera” presentation, the Old Vic has revived Jack Thorne’s 2017 reimagining of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which moved to Broadway in fall 2019 and plans to return next holiday season. Thorne’s bold adaptation minimizes the traditional ghost story elements and instead develops a narrative that focuses on Ebenezer Scrooge’s childhood trauma (George Samuel Townsend plays him as a boy, Andrew Lincoln as an adult) and how it influenced his development into the greedy, heartless man he now is — revealing the psychological damage wrought by a demanding, overbearing father (Michael Rouse), never mentioned in Dickens’s original; the boy’s relationship with his adored sister, Fan (Melissa Allan), named only once by Dickens; and his one chance at love with Belle (Gloria Obianyo), the daughter of his employer, Mr. Fezziwig (Clive Rowe), who in this version runs a funeral parlor, although Dickens himself never elucidates Fezziwig’s business.
The heart-tugging Cratchit family — Scrooge’s clerk, Bob (John Dagleish), Bob’s wife (Maria Omakinwa), and their children, including the lame Tiny Tim (Rayhaan Kufuor-Gray, Lara Mehmet, Lenny Rush, or Eleanor Stollery) — is almost an afterthought in Thorne’s retelling, while Scrooge’s deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Rouse), is given more prominence, as is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred (Eugene McCoy). The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are portrayed by a trio of women (Julie Jupp, Golda Rosheuvel, and a surprise third character) who are not daunting spirits but rather have much more intimate connections with Scrooge.
The Old Vic’s “In Camera” series, live plays streamed direct from its London stage, adhering to all Covid-19 protocols and performed without an audience, previously offered very short runs of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer with Michael Sheen, David Threlfall, and Indira Varma, Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings with Andrew Scott, and Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs with Claire Foy and Matt Smith. Helmed by Tony-winning artistic director Matthew Warchus (Matilda, God of Carnage), A Christmas Carol is riveting theater for most of its two-hour length. The action is filmed with multiple cameras that give tantalizing close-ups as well as long views, while the tech crew often utilizes split screens so expertly that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out whether actors are actually next to each other or are socially distancing, especially during several handshakes.
Lincoln (The Walking Dead, Parlour Song) is sensational in one of the most familiar roles ever written, playing Scrooge as a flawed human being rather than a brutally cold and unforgiving ogre. It’s a welcome change, as are the changes brought to other minor characters, with stand-out performances by Obianyo, Rowe, and Rosheuvel. The cast also features Rosanna Bates as Jess, Tim van Eyken as Nicholas, and Sam Lathwood as Ferdy. This is not your grandparents’ Christmas Carol.
The set by Rob Howell, who also designed the period costumes, is anchored by a slotted-wood floor, with frames without doors through which characters enter and exit and dozens of lanterns hanging from the ceiling. At the 2017-19 in-person shows, audience members received clementines and cookies; the Old Vic tries to maintain a level of interactivity by having an online quiz that begins about an hour before the play starts and by providing a family activity pack that can be downloaded for free here.
Which brings us to the ending. Throughout the show, Christmas carols are played by a masked band in the balcony, consisting of pianist and musical director Will Stuart, cellists Christopher Allan and Pedro Vieira da Silva, violinist Clare Taylor, and clarinetist Martin Robertson. The songs often get in the way of the narrative, especially with Thorne’s (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, His Dark Materials) unexpected twists, but it all becomes particularly annoying when the music, acting, and staging all combine to go way over the top during Scrooge’s rethinking of what Christmas means. What was a gripping, tense tale instantaneously lapses into a tired traditional holiday finale, turning its back on everything that came before. It had challenged what we know about this classic story but then settled for the lowest common denominator for its conclusion, which is a shame. Or, of course, I’m just being a scrooge. Bah, humbug.