december 2016 | Volume 150
Lucia Frangione has got to be some kind of genius. Holy Mo! A Christmas Show, her version of the nativity story, is original, complicated, outrageous, funny, musically delicious, too long and sometimes incomprehensible. Performed as a clown show by three talented women and imaginatively directed by Kerry Van Der Griend with some excellent design work, this Pacific Theatre production is filled with rich, sometimes wondrous, even startling moments, though the whole is less than fully satisfying.
This is Frangione’s third crack at a clown-show rendering of a biblical tale. Her earlier Holy Mo’s took on Moses and David, utilizing the same characters and approach. Traveling performers Follie (Frangione), Buffoona (Jess Amy Shead) and Guff (Anita Wittenberg) tell the story through a combination of narrative, enactment and song, using quick onstage costume changes and props from a trunk to portray many biblical figures. The language and style are pseudo-archaic, contemporary and clown-weird. The Hebrews are Heebees, Greeks are Geeks, God (I Am) is Yammy, Jesus (Emmanuel) Manny, the Magi a girl named Madge. Herod and Caesar are bad Italian movie gangsters.
The 2009 Holy Mo! (http://www.vancouverplays.com/theatre/reviews/review_holy_mo.shtml), I said in my review, was very likeable “even for a clown-resistant atheist like me.” I approach this Holy Mo! from the same perspective.
Here sweet Buffoona wants them to perform the story in the usual kid-friendly sentimental way with Santa and reindeer, while Follie, the boss of the group, wants us to know all the bloody, gory details that are usually suppressed. Grumpy Guff reluctantly goes along with them both. In the end all is reconciled in the best Christmassy way, without what I called the “treacly religion” of the 2009 ending.
The storytelling ranges from dense to delightful. In between the parts I just couldn’t follow, I loved Shead’s Mary (“a high achieving virgin, blessed of all teenagers”) and Wittenberg’s monosyllabic Joseph (Dude!”), the lovely keynote song “O Manny, O little Manny,” beautifully sung by all three women accompanying themselves on tiny guitars and kazoo (credit music director Rick Colhoun), the amazing costume changes (credit designer Amy McDougall) and transformations of Heipo Leung’s immensely clever little set.
The three terrifically accomplished women work in a carefully crafted ensemble. But I regularly found myself mesmerized by Shead, a young actress I hadn’t seen before, a recent graduate of Pacific Theatre’s apprenticeship program. She absolutely radiates the joy and grace of youth but performs with the confidence of a veteran.
I admire Frangione’s desire to make the nativity story accessible and fun without glossing over its horrifying realities (the Massacre of the Innocents, e.g.) or dumbing it down. The show never condescends to its audience. But this version of the nativity simply has too many chapters, some of them pretty obscure. Combine that with the show’s frenetic style in Pacific Theatre’s alley configuration where the performers’ backs are to you half the time, and the result is a blur of theatricalized information that sometimes doesn’t register.
Even at only two hours the show feels too long. I’d cut a few scenes and the intermission. Holy Mo! A One-Act Christmas Show might be just perfect.
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