BWW Review: HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS Delves Into Psychic Darkness At Christmas In Cold War America
HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS, the latest from Tracy Weller's experimental theater company, Mason Holdings, bills itself as a "darkly comedic... psychological study of how we experience childhood as outsiders." A brief perusal of Weller's fascinating website, Tracy Weller Land--a rabbit hole in the best sense--would make clear that this is not a show for anyone under 16, notwithstanding the pre-show holiday party with cookies, egg nog, and a live Santa.
Clearly the two mothers who brought their children to the Sunday matinee on December 4 had no idea what they were getting into. Nor, to be fair, did I, based on the online description of this one-woman show that might be described as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest meets Mommie Dearest (minus the physical abuse) set in rural America at the height of the nuclear paranoia during the Breshnev era.
At first glance, the play looked to me like a Christmas version of the great (and short) Henry James novel, What Maisie Knew. The "ugly little comedy," as James referred to one of his own favorite works in its Preface, tells the story of a bitter divorce through the eyes of a precocious little girl. But for the freshness of Maisie's perspective--the source of the novel's humor--the story would, by James' own admission, have been unbearable.
As applied to HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS, "darkly comedic" isn't accurate. For one thing, the show is rarely funny, not even in a morbid way. For another, the show is a headlong plunge--in a small closed room from which we cannot escape, seated as we are along four walls--into deepest recesses of mental pathology.
The relatives Weller expertly channels are deeply fractured. HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS, written Columbia-trained playwright Bixby Elliot, should be seen as an extension of Jarring, Weller's highly-praised 2015 play inspired by research into New York State psychiatric facilities. Directed by the award-winning Kristjan Thor, a film adaption of Jarring is now in the final stages of post-production.
Even by the yardstick of deep or edgy psychodrama, HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS, also directed by Thor, is bafflingly incoherent. Weller's astonishing physical beauty and dancer's physique--even in a large pinafore with ripped tights and bloody forehead--impresses one from the moment she rises from the ground under a large hole in what one assumes is the roof of a house during a winter storm. A classically trained ballet dancer (Boston Ballet, School of American Ballet) with an M.F.A from Columbia, it's immediately clear that Weller has talent for miles.
Still, precious little in this play makes sense. We know that the protagonist's distraught mother (who is also her children's teacher) takes great pains to make a beautiful Christmas, that she and her siblings are not supposed to snack between meals, that the grandmother believes people should eat when they're hungry, and that Breshnev is in power and that commies are bad. We also also know that the mother employs psychological tactics that can only be termed terroristic. Misbehaving children will have their faces torn off and ugly intentions revealed for what they are (by exposing the brain, though how thought might be made visual is unclear).
The girl wants a real, not a Raggedy Ann, doll for Christmas. A fair amount of psychic energy surrounds this doll and the letter to Santa asking for it. Will Santa get the letter? Will he care? Will the parents (who cannot afford the doll) step in and buy it, or will the girl be disappointed yet again? It's the only unifying detail or structural anchor to be found in HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS.
The set is a cluttered attic playroom with piles of kitsch. Snowflakes descend through the large hole in the roof and make breathing slightly difficult, particularly since the room is so hot. Immersive theater (of which I am a fan) is one thing, but the audience should not feel suffocated by heat or dust.
Based on promotional materials, I take it a former incarnation of the play included 8mm and 16mm footage projected onto the walls of the set. The removal of visual effects may account for the disjointed feel of HOLIDAY HOUSE: CHRISTMAS BENDS, which, in spite of the star's obvious ability, simply does not work as a piece of storytelling.