BWW Review: Make Merry With Tir Na's RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER
Return of the Winemaker: An Irish Christmas Comedy
Performances through December 20 by Tir Na Productions at Davis Square Theatre, 255 Elm Street, Somerville, MA; Tickets: www.winemaker.brownpapertickets.com
Picture God in a white, jewel-encrusted Elvis jumpsuit with an acoustic guitar slung around His neck. Next, provide Him with a heavenly blonde wife named Marilyn whose premature death was determined by divine intervention (way better than online dating). Finally, accept the idea that they arranged the second coming of their ne'er-do-well son Jesus to take place in the small Irish village of Ballygoura, County Galway, where His ability to turn water into wine makes Him a local hero. Jesus' earthly parents Paddy Joyce and his wife Peggy try to figure out a way to maintain the status quo when God's diminishing abilities force Him to summon the young man home to take on more responsibility, but it isn't exactly a level playing field.
Return of the Winemaker: An Irish Christmas Comedy is a gift of the season from Tir Na Productions. This absurd little dark comedy is labeled in the program as "celebrating Christmas the way only the Irish can," and I think that explains the singing, dancing, and freely flowing libations which are crucial to playwright Bernard McMullan's story. Tir Na Producing Artistic Director Colin Hamell (Paddy) is joined by Nancy E. Carroll (Peggy, Marilyn, & Sister Maura), Stephen Russell (God), and Derry Woodhouse (Jesus), all returning company players, and Sara Fraser (Margie). No stranger herself to Tir Na, Director Carmel O'Reilly draws relaxed, natural performances from the ensemble and captures the right atmosphere, making the subterranean space at the Davis Square Theatre feel like an Irish pub where everybody knows your name.
McMullan imagines that the second coming is much like the first, wherein a very pregnant virgin named Mary and her significant other Joe show up at Paddy's pub after closing time on December 24, 1975, seeking a room. Although he insists that the place is closed and he has no rooms, Paddy relents when he sees Mary's condition and allows the couple in so she can give birth on the bar. God and Marilyn orchestrate the event while they observe from the shadows, singing a song about the second coming while Paddy dances around with a baby doll stand-in for Jesus. The playwright includes a couple of scenes to selectively show moments of Jesus' childhood: as a seven-year old, he walks on water; at fifteen, he has long hair and listens to heavy metal on his boombox; at the age of thirty, he miraculously turns water into wine and finally earns his dad's appreciation.
Meanwhile, things aren't going so well in heaven as God is losing His mental faculties, unable to converse cogently unless He's singing along with His guitar. When Marilyn sends a message to Jesus that it is time for Him to come home, Paddy suggests that they come to Ballygoura for Christmas to celebrate Jesus' birthday, hoping to convince them to let their son remain. Paddy and the villagers convene to brainstorm a solution, but it is tipsy Sister Maura who recommends tempting God by tempting Jesus with Margie, euphemistically referred to as a woman "from down the road." Marilyn steps in to inflict some pain on Paddy to make him stop the scheme, and eventually a compromise is reached that is satisfactory to all.
The story is obviously irreverent and played for laughs, but it is all done lovingly and with good humor. Each of the principal players is terrific, with Hamell appearing to be constantly on the verge of bursting a blood vessel out of his frustration with losing his golden goose. Woodhouse charms as he follows his character's growth from boy, to adolescent, to man, to savior. When his parents come to visit, his excitement is palpable, and, when he must depart, his sadness is felt in equal measure. Russell nails the part of God as rock star, enlivening the action whenever he introduces a song, and adds to the verisimilitude of his Elvis-persona when he sings "Blue Christmas." He aptly contrasts this with the other side of his character when he appears lost and confused. Challenged with playing three characters, Carroll not only differentiates them by her voice, posture, and bearing, but finds ways to make two of them extremely funny while showing the poignant quality of the third woman. In her spare time, Carroll also handled the show's choreography.
The cozy space at the Davis Square Theatre is an ideal setting, made to feel more intimate by O'Reilly's use of the side aisles. When God and Marilyn are standing only a few feet away from your seat, you can't help but be absorbed into the world of the play. There's even an opportunity for everyone to sing along with God ("Amen"). Return of the Winemaker is not a traditional Christmas show, but it reminds us of the importance of family on this holiday in particular and you will definitely leave the theatre feeling merry.