By Bill Marx
The prospect of holiday cheer on stage is pretty depressing to contemplate after the soporific treacle of Paula Vogel’s PC-crazed “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration,” which culminates in the unintentionally eye-popping vision of Walt Whitman, dressed as Kris Kringle, visiting a dying Jewish soldier. For those reluctant to take in heaping helpings of “The SantaLand Diaries” and the dwindling flock of “Christmas Carols” (Scrooge once owned this holiday on stage), I have picked a few alternatives, many at universities.
1) A Question of Mercy by David Rabe. Presented by the BCAP (Boston University’s professional performing arts initiative) at the BU Theatre, Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, December 2 through 19, 2009. Ah, a play about euthanasia during the holidays! A timely script given the blather about “death panels” amid increasing evidence that expensive end-of-life treatment is a major contributor to America’s broken health care system. Rabe’s tale revolves around an AIDS patient who, in the last stages of the disease, asks his physician to help him die. It was inspired by “A Question of Mercy,” an essay by Richard Selzer that appeared in “The New York Times Magazine” on September 22, 1991.
2) Shulamis by Avrom Golfaden. Directed by Debra Caplan and Cecilia Raker. At the Agassiz Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, December 2 through 6, 2009. Golfaden’s popular play, “the very last production of interwar Yiddish theatre in Warsaw in 1939,” finds new life as an operetta. The student production features a new English translation by Yiddish translator Nahma Sandrow and a musical score by Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek.
The plot deals with the beautiful young Shulamis who, while wandering though the desert, is “rescued by handsome Avsholem, who swears to marry her upon his return from Jerusalem. When Avsholem fails to come for her, Shulamis pretends to go mad in order to keep her vow to him, yearning both for his return and for revenge.”
3) Where the Magic Happens by George Watsky. Directed by Jim Fagan. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts, December 6 and 7, 2009. “Slam poet prodigy George Watsky blends traditional theatrical storytelling and spoken word for a wry look at “anti-social” networking, family and the magic of technology. Using their cell phones, audience members will decide the path this young HBO veteran takes as he explores the ways people interact in the post postmodern age.” So, we are in the “post postmodern age” — does that mean audience members can use technology to tell the performer when they have had enough? Sounds promising … if true.
4) Illyria: The Musical, a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by Peter C. Mills and Cara Reichel. Directed by Stephen Terrell. Presented by Emerson Stage at the Tufte Performance and Production Center, Semel Theater 3rd floor, 10 Boylston Place, Boston, MA, December 10 through 13, 2009. The current approach to Shakespeare appears to be to take the Bard’s plot and characters but deep-six his language. Seems to me to be a losing proposition, a goes-down-easy approach that will only make Shakespeare less compelling by removing his genius, but so it goes … perhaps, if the cell phone idea catches hold, we can call the director, marketers, and performers and ask for the poetry back.