The Salem News
December 4, 2009
The Salem Theatre Company will present two plays for the holidays. One is about childhood. Children will not be admitted to the other, due to its mature themes and language.
This weekend and next, "Naughty and Nice: A Christmas Repertory" will give theater audiences a choice of "A Child's Christmas in Wales," Dylan Thomas' nostalgic evocation of holidays past, or "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues," in which Santa's beasts of burden give the lowdown on their boss's bad behavior. Both plays will be performed at the Salem Athenaeum.
Director Catherine Bertrand, who presented "The Eight" twice when she was a student at Salem State College, acknowledged that she has always enjoyed "jostling audiences" with edgy, honest material.
"Everyone sees Christmas as this cheery, jolly holiday," she said. "Why not take people out of their comfort zone?"
The play is staged as a press conference, which has been organized after accusations surface against Santa Claus. As Dasher, Prancer and the others tell their stories, an ugly image of Santa emerges.
"This is for adults to think about, and to laugh about," Bertrand said.
Playwright Jeff Goode drew suggestions from the reindeer's names — Prancer, Vixen and the rest — to create their characters. He also gave each one a recognizable perspective on the world.
"One character is a real hard right-winger," Bertrand said. "Before that, you get a very feminist point of view."
The play as a whole "makes a bold statement about politics and gender roles in this media-saturated society," she said.
Where "The Eight" presents contrasting and contrary voices, "A Child's Christmas in Wales" has been adapted by director Caroline Watson-Felt to reveal distinct characters within the narrator's voice.
Thomas, primarily a poet, is renowned for the richness of his language. Surprising figures of speech, delivered in a lurching, lilting manner, create new worlds as it makes music out of English.
In her reading of "A Child's Christmas in Wales," Watson-Felt sensed separate layers in the story's language, which she identified as "the three Dylans."
"There's a clear child voice of memories with phrases like 'slap-dashing home,'" Watson-Felt said.
This is accompanied by "a slightly older-man voice that loves to tell stories about young boys pretending to smoke candy cigarettes and getting into trouble."
Thirdly, "there is also a definite voice of an older-wiser-darker Dylan that ponders and reflects with really poetic phrases like, 'Not many those mornings trod the piling streets.'"
By staging these layers as distinct characters, Watson-Felt said, "I've literally created three Dylans," and made a new play out of the classic Christmas story.
In the same conjuring spirit, she added a "pre-show" to the performance, "an audience interactive pre-show, with a young boy playing a whistle, audience sing-alongs, and the actors themselves caroling and setting up the stage. The audience will watch the environment come to life before their eyes."
Watson-Felt admitted that she loved the story during her own childhood and hopes her adaptation "leaves everyone loving this story and ready for the holidays."
As a repertory production, the pair of plays have overlapping casts. Four actors appear in both shows, and, according to Bertrand, it's a challenge for them to move from "the language and environment of Wales, only to follow that up with the sometimes painful questions and details of 'The Eight.'"
Watson-Felt, who plays Blitzen in "The Eight" while directing "A Child's Christmas in Wales," described the contrasting plays as "the proverbial holiday chocolate coin, completely wholesome about Wales on one side, absolutely flipped and wild on the other."
If you go
What: "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
When: Today at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m.
What: "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues," no one under 18 permitted
When: Tomorrow and Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 13 at 3 p.m.
Where: Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex St., Salem
More information: Tickets $10 students/seniors, $12 adults at www.salemtheatre.com or 978-790-8546.