By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Holiday shows come in all shapes and sizes (and degrees of fa-la-la-la-la and levity), as well you know. And since this year you’ll be home decking the halls (and not your irritating second-cousins, after 3 eggnogs), here are two shows that have fun with characters who are eager-beaver thesps, theatre-loving wannabes jockeying for the limelight in the Nativity story.
One is a new radio musical from the witty brain of Rebecca Merkley: Dammitammy Production’s They Wanted To Do Chekhov. The other is the 11th annual edition, this year online, of Whizgiggling Productions’ funny, heartwarming The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever.
Her new radio play isn’t the first time the actor/ composer/ singer/ director/ playwright Merkley has succumbed to the theatrical lure of Christmas. Last year’s Yuletide offering from Dammitammy was Merk du Soleil, a blithely unclassifiable holiday comedy cabaret. She directed Calla Wright’s Christmas Play, which imagines the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future in a Zoom call together (it’s back, online, Dec. 17 to 19).
“I did write a Christmas show three years ago,” she laughs, “the Nativity story done by monsters.” That’s on hold. But They Wanted To Do Chekhov has monsters of another kind: die-hard theatrical upstagers with an assortment of aspirations and grievances. “I love that trope,” she says. “I changed the whole scene.”
Dammitammy first made the scene at the 2016 Fringe with Merkley’s The Unsyncables, a very amusing underdog comedy about an ad hoc synchronized swim team up against a slick pro swim “club.” And they followed it up the following summer with Merkley’s delightful, very accomplished 60-minute Rivercity The Musical, which borrows the characters from the Archie comics.
With They Wanted To Do Chekhov, the enterprising Merkley has created an original 30-minute chamber radio play-within-a-radio play — with original music. As Dammitammy’s Halloween production Camp: the radio play warned listeners, “this program may contain scenes that may contain scenes…. Viewer indiscretion is advised.”
At The Northern Alberta Drama society Gary (Gabby Bernard), “the artist-in-residence who’s not getting paid (ed. note: like, when has that ever happened?), is making her directorial debut” — with her own adaptation of the Gospel of St. Luke’s (New Living Translation) Nativity Story.
Davina dela Cruz (Chariz Faulmino) is a gung-ho first-time actor. Glen Von Trappe (possibly his stage name, played by Cameron Chapman) is clearly slumming. After all he was considered for a Cappie for his deeply moving portrayal of Constantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull. “Infuriating, but sad,” says Merkley. “We all know this person!”
Merkley herself is Phyllis Saskatchewan, “amateur puppeteer and foodie,” with Kristina Hunszinger as Joan, the “aloof audio technician.” The pair also do the audio-editing.
And for celeb power, “Jesus makes an appearance as himself,” in order to dispense “words of wisdom” at crucial moments. This is something of a dispensation: “He normally only does A-house gigs, but has decided to support indie theatre because of the global pandemic.”
“We do the commercial breaks, too,” says Merkley, who composed music along with John W. Smith. Lois from Clyde AB, for example, has a compilation album to sell, so we’ll hear samples from such would-be recording artists as the Saskatchewan Family Duo. And, because as musicians Merkley and cast “just couldn’t” bring themselves to do a show without at least some good music as a contrast to the “misguided” content, there’s some legit stuff too. “To cleanse the palate,” she laughs.
With a friend’s recording studio available, all the audio was done there before the lockdown, “masked and spaced.” Says Merkley, “it was fun. Embrace the chaos! I wanted to bring people love and joy…. And the talent! There’s so much talent to work with!”
They Wanted To Do Chekhov is available starting Dec. 15. Tickets at dammitammy.com.
•Whizgiggling Productions, the Edmonton indie theatre named, appealingly, after the Newfoundland lingo for “acting silly or foolish,” once more takes us behind the scenes on the Rock, the spirited and party-hearty easternmost Canadian province.
For 11 seasons now, Whizgiggling’s version of The Best Little Newfoundland Christmas Pageant … Ever, the riotous Nfld. classic (a venerable Yuletide tradition in St. John’s), has been attracting fun-loving YEG audiences, too. This year Whizgiggling has re-worked the production for online viewing (I’m picturing you in your pjs, a screech in hand). “It’s been a wild ride, but we hope to bring some joy into people’s living rooms,” says producer Cheryl Jameson.
The play, adapted from Barbara Robinson’s much-loved novel, takes us into the ever-fraught world of amateur theatricals. When the usual director of the annual Christmas pageant is out of commission (due to an ill-fated encounter with a moose), Mrs. O’Brien has to step up. What should have been a cakewalk takes an unexpected turn when the dread Herdmans, “the worst kids in school,” show up for the auditions, attracted by rumours of free snacks.
The pageant “plot” utterly perplexes them. “Mary ties him up and shoves him in a feedbox? Where’s Child Welfare?” But undeterred, they shove everyone aside to take on the starring roles. What will become of the great tradition? The citizens are, to put it mildly, concerned.
The 2019 cast return for the 2020 edition: Sheldon Elter, Kayla Gorman Natalie Czar Gummer, Cheryl Jameson, Bob Rasko, Lindsey Walker. Catch it at your place Dec. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 20th at 4:30 p.m. Tickets (starting at $15 per household) are available at fringetheatre.ca.