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Review: NATIVITY VARIATIONS is the Christmas Comedy You've Been Wishing For

Review: NATIVITY VARIATIONS is the Christmas Comedy You've Been Wishing For

Milwaukee Rep's World Premier is a Holiday Treat

When was the last time you went to a holiday show with laughter as the main ingredient? If you, like me, couldn't promptly answer that question, then get ready to receive one of the very best gifts of the season. Catherine Trieschmann's The Nativity Variations is making its world premier debut at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater under the direction of Shelley Butler. This funny play is a winner for anyone craving Christmas cheer with a big side of laughs.

Artistic Director Mark Clements commissioned this new play by Trieschmann after reading an online article where the playwright said she felt a "moral obligation" to write and direct her church's nativity play after seeing one too many cringe-worthy versions. Clements smartly sensed there was a great idea here -- and Trieschmann came through with her original script.

In The Nativity Variations, a small-town community theater called the Prairie Community Players (PCP) has been tasked with putting on a nativity play. Director Jules (Sami Ma) is stoked to rake in the promised ticket sales, but she's determined to stay true to the company's avant garde roots. From an experimental version of the nativity slick with blood and gore to a Shakespearean twist to an Avenue Q-esque rendition complete with puppets, each variation is more frenzied and hilarious than the last.

Each actor in the theater troupe can take some credit for the wild antics we bear witness to. First we meet Karl (Chiké Johnson), the most professional and high-brow of the bunch. Johnson brings immense presence and a glorious, booming voice worthy of both God and a faux Angel of God -- both parts Karl/Johnson plays with spectacular panache. Some of that panache is thanks to eye-popping looks by Costume Designer Sara Ryung Clement.

Next we meet two seasoned community theater performers, Mateo (Ryan Alvarado) and Vanessa (Sadieh Rifai). With the awkwardness of a failed relationship hanging over their heads, Mateo and Vanessa have plenty to squabble about -- and romantic feelings lurking beneath the surface. Alvarado and Rifai make the couple's dynamic easy and enjoyable, each one packing ample charisma.

But the audience favorites in this colorful crew have to be Peggy (Ann Arvia) and Hank (Adam LeFevre), a pair of retirees who joined the PCP to get out of the house. Arvia and LeFevre are hysterical in their own right and a real hoot together. With these two at the helm, the characters of Peggy and Hank feel familiar and instantly lovable.

LeFevre's comedic chops really come alive when dabbling in puppetry. His general demeanor -- shuffling about the stage in his black orthopedics, a little spaced out -- is totally endearing. Arvia earns loads of laughs with Peggy's comedic over-eagerness, then turns around and surprises with an operatic "Hey Nonny Nonny," proving how dynamic she is as a performer.

This delightful cast comes together to present the nativity in ways that director Jules calls "blasphemy within reason." But you don't have to be religious to see the humor or appreciate the universal themes at work here: the power of art, friendship, acknowledging each other, and sharing good stories. The Nativity Variations is as much an exploration of the nativity as it is an ode to various styles of theater. In the end, it's a comedy -- well-paced, laughter-filled, and heartwarming theater full of smart writing and charming characters. In short, The Nativity Variations is the perfect gift for Milwaukee audiences this holiday season.

Catch The Nativity Variations at the Milwaukee Rep through December 11, 2022.

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From This Author - Kelsey Lawler

  Kelsey Lawler is a copywriter by day and zealot for local theater by night. She earned her BA in Writing Intensive English from Marquette University in 2009, and has been working as an edito... (read more about this author)

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