BWW Review: Seattle Public Theater's Noir CHRISTMASTOWN Successfully Threads Parody Needle
Can a Christmas noir be both gripping and funny? Can it succeed at all? Well, we know it can, because "Christmastown" returns to Seattle Public Theater as the second half of their holiday double header (along with The Flight Before Xmas). Not only does director Kelly Kitchens avoid cheesiness (which something like this could so, so easily have in spades), but she creates a yuletide, hard boiled mash-up that works both as a comedy and as a noir. Ring-a-ding-ding, we got us a perfect parody!
We open on a hardboiled detective donning the outfit of any troubled protagonist who swears he's out of the game: trench coat, fedora, and a thousand-mile gaze. Meet Nick Holiday (John Ulman), a gumshoe who's been given a case by a gorgeous dame named Holly Wonderland, daughter of local fat cat E.B. Wonderland. She presents him with incriminating photographs of her mother in the arms of a very powerful man.
This powerful man in the image? None other than Santa Claus. Here's the kicker: this all takes place in the fictional land of "Christmastown", where every day is Christmas Eve, and the population consists of humans, elves, and reindeer (that we see). Holiday is human, and Wonderland is an elf whose gams, as Holiday fittingly puts it, "weren't long but where they went made sense." Holiday takes a candy cane out of his cigarette holder, pops one in his mouth, and is on the case.
Staying true to the noir narrative, the more the detective digs, the more complicated the crime reveals itself to be. Along the way, audiences meet a couple of screwball bouncers (played hilariously by Pilar O'Connell and Carol Thompson) akin to The Three Stooges; a set of identical twin cops who take the good-cop-bad-cop dynamic to the next level (Carol Thompson); a crooked Tiny Tim (Brandon Felker); and a gang of reindeer mobsters (Pilar O'Connell). For how silly the play sounds on paper, the production is impressively gripping.
This is how you do a parody properly: it goes beyond imitating the genre it's satirizing and truly becomes the genre that it's satirizing. Of course "Christmastown" is silly on the surface, but it's also an engaging crime story. Before you know it, you want to know whodunnit, even if whodunnit might be Kris Kringle.
Seattle Public Theater time and time again impresses with its set design, and "Christmastown" is no exception. Granted, it's a sparse set, but it's effective (especially complimented by Ahren Buhmann's very creative lighting techniques). Scenic and prop designer Milo Robinson also does a lot with a little, only using the necessary scenic accouterment to establish setting. For example, all that is on stage are a crystal whiskey decanter and a three-panel divider, but it's clearly a speakeasy dressing room. Robinson uses very characteristic props to set the scene and keep things minimal.
While most of the comedy in the play comes from dialogue, there's a good amount of humor generated by clever sound-effect usage. Just like in noir films, which are full of over-the-top audio cues, "Christmastown" gussies up scenes with exaggerated, canned, Hanna Barbera-y sound effects. The car horns, the gunshots, the punching, and the whistle of a person falling from a high height: it's nostalgic, fitting, and delightful. Awooga!
Pilar O'Connell, Carol Thompson, and Brandon Felker each play at least three different, fully flushed-out characters. O'Connell shines as damsel-with-some-tricks up-her-sleeves Holly Wonderland. Thompson is a comedic Swiss Army knife, and the scene where she plays both twin cops (Lieutenant Nice and Detective Naughty) is hilarious. Felker's towering, uptight Mrs. Claus is just a tad menacing, which makes her even funnier. John Ulman only plays one character, our leading man Nick Holiday, but he captures the emotionally distant, tough-as-nails detective archetype well. And you can bet he punctuates more than a few sentences with the phrase "see" (as in, "I've got a plan, see?"). Bogart lives!
"Christmastown" could easily be a Turner Classic Movie one would watch with their family during the holidays. This story would come on right between "Casablanca" and those classic Claymation Christmas specials from the 1970s. For it's creative take on a Christmas tale, I give noir parody "Christmastown" a pleasantly surprised A-. Seattle Public Theater crushed this holiday double feature!
"Christmastown" performs at the Seattle Public Theater through December 24, 2017. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.seattlepublictheater.org .