There was a time when theater during the holidays was inviolate territory; nobody messed with everybody's favorite Christmas shows.
Of course, some folks eventually got bored with all that sincere Christmastime crap and decided to go with some more unconventional ideas.
Two of those kind of shows opened last weekend. And while they are both repeats, of a sort, they each have something new in store that deserves some attention. One is anchored by two women who are boozers and sluts, and proud of it. And the other is the return of Crumpet, the neurotic department store elf played this year by one of the area's most inventive performers.
Sure, there are only two dick jokes in the title of The Loush Sisters Love Dick'ns: Great Expectations, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, but don't be disappointed. If the mere utterance of the words "dick," "come" (erroneously spelled "cum" by some heathens), "nuts," "boobs" or "fuck" make you laugh uproariously, then you're in for a treat. Yes, the tipsy siblings Holly and Jolly Loush (It's a combination of loose and lush, get it?) are back at Cleveland Public Theatre with their amped-up musicale that drapes the Christmas spirit in a glistening aura of sparkles—sort of like a well-lubed inflatable dildo when it catches the light just right.
And yes, that's pretty much the "Oops, I said a naughty word" style of humor that the Loush franchise has made its stock in trade. In 2013 the same tacky sisters—played then, as now, by director Beth Wood and the always-on-it Liz Conway—did an out-of-the-box (tee-hee!) takeoff on The Nutcracker (ha!). This time, it's a Christmas Carol parody featuring the three ghosts along with the fractured Loush family dynamics (there is also a third sister, Butter Rum, and still more offspring).
Among frequent dead spots there are highlights: Conway and Woods, whose determined performances exhibit a fierce if not entirely understandable devotion to this material; Sheffia Randall Dooley as Butter Rum, who does a sultry, show-stopping version of "Rumor Has It;" and Brian Pedaci as the pimped-out Ghost of Christmas Present with a (tiny) dick-in-a-box.
Some of the other supporting actors display a lack of comedy chops, often substituting volume for invention and mugging for wit. Of course the script, as created by Conway, Woods and Michael Seevers, Jr., should take most of the punishment—complete with ball gag, handcuffs and butt plug. On second thought, no, they'd probably just enjoy it.
Loushly weaving together pop songs, carols, and double-entendres, the overlong two-hour show can offer a certain kind of what-the-fuck fun, especially if you have a stiff beverage in one hand as you insert yourself into the high-volume camp vibe. If you don't, it could be more like a non-consensual Cleveland steamer situation. Hey, nobody said the holiday shows are a risk-free zone.
Speaking of risk, here comes The Santaland Diaries once again at Playhouse Square in a production by Cleveland Public Theatre. Now a staple of Christmas in Cleveland, this one-hour memoir by gay humorist David Sedaris, relating his incarceration (er, employment) as an elf in Macy's Santa village, was a huge hit when he read it on National Public Radio back in the day.
Since then, it has been staged locally at many venues featuring many different actors. This time around, the talented performer Ray Caspio steps into the curly-toed slippers and green velvet tunic of Sedaris at age 33 playing elf Crumpet. And he does a fine job even though this production, as with virtually all the others, kind of misses the point.
It's hard to blame either Caspio or director Cathleen O'Malley for this shortfall. Caspio uses his elfin face and limber physicality to wonderful effect, especially when rhapsodizing about his character's beloved soap opera stars. And O'Malley stages the inherently static reading with energetic imagination that never detracts from the story.
Still, this is the mordant tale of a born-and-bred New York City neurotic who eventually admits that he is "not a good person." And he proves it by poking fun, in his diary entries, of variously challenged Santaland visitors. There's some dark stuff in here, and it's hard to access when you're faced, from the get-go, with set designer Aaron Benson's standard-issue Santa environment.
Sedaris, like many curmudgeonly nerds, lived in his gloriously twisted head before he started to share his wit and wisdom with the world. That is a transition that is hinted at in the conclusion of this piece. When a production of Santaland Diaries finally finds a way to capture that very specific journey, it really will be a Christmas miracle.