By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In Oh! Christmas Tree, the new Conni Massing romantic comedy that opens Thursday at Theatre Network, a relationship is under extreme pressure. Is it money? Snoring? Musical tastes? Lunatic relativies? Whether to acquire a shitsu?
No, my friends, this is serious. I return you to the the title of this, the second of two back-to-back Massing premieres this season (Workshop West’s Matara just closed) — and the festive tannenbaum. The play, part of the Roxy Performance Series, has to do with Christmas and the seasonal shrubbery, an evergreen situation so to speak — and a couple who’ve just moved in together, with impending marriage plans. Lucy, the youngest of five sisters and a party-planner by trade, is from a close-knit Scandinavian family with elaborately energetic holiday traditions. Algar, a high school social studies teacher, is none of the above. His family lives across the country, and he likes it that way.
Where on earth could such a theatrical inspiration have come from? Massing, a droll and effervescent sort with a wicked sense of humour, explains: real life. “Poor Bob,” she says of her husband. “He’s quite introverted, and I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate having any part of our lives featured in drama. But (Oh! Christmas Tree) was actually inspired by our relationship….”
“I’m less Christmas-mad than I used to be. But when we first got together….” Massing drifts amiably into recollection. “So we move in together, and one day I say, ‘well, maybe we can get the tree this weekend…. And Bob said, ‘uh, do we have to?’.” It stopped Massing in her tracks.
“‘Well, yeah. We have to have a Christmas tree’. He was actually really hoping we wouldn’t have to go there…. I know eh?” Massing is still awestruck by this unexpected development. “OK, not life and death. But it felt pretty big, in the context of our lives together. Was this going to be A Thing?”
“For me,” she says feelingly, “the tree is the epicentre of Christmas…. I care more about the tree than the gifts under it, really.”
In the end, Massing prevailed and they got a tree. “I’m the baby of the family and used to getting my own way; Bob is a long-suffering oldest child. But I’m more grown-up than you might imagine,” Massing laughs. For the sake of the relationship she compromised on an artificial tree, though “it sort of pains me.” She heats pine oil in an incense burner to compensate.
Naturally, Lucy and Algar aren’t exact replicas of their real-life inspirations. “There’s probably more of me in Lucy than Bob in Algar,” says Massing. She’s “so tickled!” (“it’s always been my dream with this show”) that a real-life married couple stars in the production directed by Brian Deedrick, on loan from the opera world for the occasion. You’ll meet Lora Brovold and Collin Doyle in the 12thnight.ca companion piece to this article (read it here).
“It’s one of my little theories about relationships,” says Massing, “that the thing that really draws you in a romance often has a flip side that you might not really care for when you get deeper into the exploration. The thought works its way into Oh! Christmas Tree, which began life as a 53-minute commission from Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre in 2012.
“The cheerful extroverted (aspect) of Lucy’s nature that Algar really fell in love with has a dark side, it turns out. And in the opposite direction, she loves his sardonic sense of humour. But there’s a flip side to that,” too. And it surfaces during the fa-la-la season when domestic friction really comes into its own.
Not least, Massing agrees, because there’s a kind of obligation to be happy, the unspoken cultural thought that “you’re kind of a fuck-up if you can’t get it up for Christmas.”
Agar is up against it in other ways, too. For one thing, as a teacher, he’s convinced that during the Yuletide season, “a slippery slope from Halloween,” the kids are “completely out of their minds.” Lucy’s line of work means that Christmas is her silly season. “There she is, making hats for the Mr. Lube Christmas staff party, things like that. And she’s agreed to take on a Christmas Eve wedding.”
“She has a huge kooky close-knit family,” with inviolable Yuletide traditions, of an indeterminately Scandinavian nature. In this regard, Massing, who has four siblings, extrapolates a little from her own family life, adrenalized into overdrive at Christmas. “On top of everything else, by Nov. 30 we each had to buy 24 little presents, for each day of Advent, and write a little poem to accompany each present.”
“I regress to my worst five-year-old self,” says Massing cheerfully of her personal Christmas avatar. “If I got more sleep and ate less shortbread…. Eating too much sugar is bad for people’s marriages.”
Oh! Christmas Tree
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart
Written by: Conni Massing
Directed by: Brian Deedrick
Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca