'The Christmas Spirit' by Frederick Stroppel
A Scarborough Theatre Guild production now onstage at Scarborough Village Theatre
Julie Adams Photography
Tremendous potential for this quirky Christmas comedy impeded by audibility issues, lack of vocal control, challenges with enunciation and throwaways of comic line delivery.
I was listening to CHFI’s 24-hour Christmas music station in the car on my way to the theatre to put me in ‘The Christmas Spirit’. What an apt play title for this time of year. Scarborough Theatre Guild made a good choice not to go with the tried and true either of ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ but wanted to challenge both themselves and their audiences with something a little different as we returned from a two-plus year hiatus.
The poster design of Death’s picture in the Christmas ornament is eerily spooky. In the display window at the Village Theatre is the larger-than-life spectre of Death amid Christmas decorations. Ironically makes its point that death doesn’t take time off for the holidays.
Over the years, I’ve liked what the Guild has produced and was really looking forward to seeing how this ‘Christmas Spirit’ worked in front of an audience. I was quietly rooting for the Guild, and I really wanted this opening night to succeed, I really did.
And there are some positive things about ‘The Christmas Spirit’ to which I paid close attention.
The reason we go to the theatre is to see actors tell a story in a community setting.
I have no problem with quirkiness in a story and most heartily welcome it.
But this opening night production did not let me enjoy it as much as I could. Audibility and enunciation issues along with voice projection of several of the central characters, lack of vocal control, and throwaways of comic line delivery were frustrating.
The Scarborough Village Theatre is a three-quarter thrust theatre stage. I sat on the side of stage left in the back row. There were three ladies who sat in front of me. I remarked how one of them turned to the other about five minutes into the first act and whispered: “I can’t hear what they’re saying.”
We are in the home of widow Julia Dowling (Susan Sanders), a dear sweet and often dotty lady who is visited by Jack (Scott Simpson) who is Death. Simpson is affably calm and serene as he sweetly tries to take Julia’s hand on ‘his’ doorstep on this Christmas Eve, but she makes a deal with him to let her have one more day with her family before she leaves this world. Julia invites Jack to Christmas dinner the next day with members of her family. Jack plans to arrive around 3 pm.
It's a quirky, oddball and maladjusted family to say the least. We met daughter Beth (Julie Jarrett) in the first scene who has arrived home from midnight mass. Beth has a huge chip on her shoulder about her life. Julia and her other daughter, Susan, have not spoken to each other for the last two years.
The next day we meet Julia’s son, Paul (Mike Doucette) and his ‘girlfriend’ Melissa Rosen (Mallory Holmes). Also invited to dinner are Julia’s cantankerous, bitchy sister Rosemary (Karen Koenig) and her husband, Bernie (Drew Smylie) who appears oblivious to everything possibly for two reasons – perhaps he might either be in the early stages of dementia, or he has been henpecked by Rosemary for so many years he has learned to take second place. Julia has also invited her parish priest, Father Brennan (Alan Maynes). Jack arrives a bit later than anticipated and he has brought a guest with him, Matthew Harris (Brad Finch).
Kathlyn Angelo and Kevin Shaver’s set design nicely framed the story. Since her husband’s death, Julia has not updated the furniture and it most certainly showed in the pieces from the couch, two chairs and a coffee table. A Christmas tree is fully lit upstage just off centre. The main entrance door is upstage right on the back wall. A staircase to the second level is found on the back wall stage left. The kitchen is just off stage left. Downstage right angled is an old black and white tv set and downstage left angled is a bench with bricks painted on the floor which becomes the outside of the house.
Andra Bradish’s costume designs are pinpoint perfect. Death is dressed completely in white when we first meet him. Excellent choice to make as the purity of the colour comically enhances the reason why he’s there. Each costume appropriately fits the individual actors. I also liked Simpson's ugly bright red Christmas sweater with 'HO HO HO' boldly emblazoned on the front contrasting nicely with what others were wearing before and apres dinner. Sanders' gown she wears to the Christmas dinner is beautifully made.
I'm assuming Andy Roberts' Sound Design selected the Christmas music for the pre-show and at each of the set changes. They worked.
I understand why blackouts are necessary to indicate the passage of time, but I found there was just a tad too many of them and I had to work quickly to build my interest in the plot once again.
Director Kevin Shaver assuredly understands the necessary comic timing of the piece. At the top of the show, I especially liked the one-line reference from the film ‘Die Hard’: “Yippee-ki-yay (and ‘mf’ was bleeped out.) Those who know Shaver are aware he is an aficionado of the film, and this was his brief homage to it. I also liked the print of Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ on the back wall – get it? This is Julia’s last supper and the family’s last supper with her.
Where this ‘Christmas Spirit’ still needs work, nevertheless, is actor vocal preparation, especially in enunciation clarity. Yes, they have their lines down and that’s positive. But there were so many times when I couldn’t decipher what was said and it grew to the point where I nearly started to give up. At the top of the show when Julia meets Death there were so many quick one-liners batted back and forth between the two; however, I couldn’t hear half of the conversation between Sanders and Simpson as they were quiet when their backs were turned to us at the side. In a three-quarter thrust stage, the actor must be aware of that fact and will have to work hard to ensure he/she can be heard everywhere in the house.
I had no issues at all hearing supporting actors Alan Maynes, Mike Doucette, and Brad Finch so I was able to get a clear picture of who they were and their relationship to the others in the various scenes. Maynes’ Father Brennan is that calm voice of reason especially when he asks something crucial of Death in the second act. Doucette’s off-key singing Paul adds to the amusing realization he is a songwriter. Brad Finch never upstages any of the actors and his appropriately timed steely gaze says it all.
I just wish I could clearly hear the central characters more. I am hoping they will address these vocal issues immediately for future audiences and performances.
Susan Sanders’ Georgia Engels’ ish portrayal of Julia is a good choice. Here is a not-too-bright lady who confronts the harsh reality of what all of us will finally meet at one point. When I could hear Julie Jarrett as Beth, she offered an interesting look at a daughter who has endured her own personal issues. However, Jarrett’s constantly in-motion hand movements distracted me so I started looking at what she was doing with them instead of listening to what she was saying. Additionally, from the side view, I couldn’t see Jarrett’s face for nearly half of the show as her hair and bangs were getting in the way.
The brief onstage chemistry between Mike Doucette and Mallory Holmes as 'boyfriend and girlfriend' was solid and believable. I could hear Holmes in her interplay with Doucette. However, her vocal projection and enunciation were unsteady in her work with some of the other characters.
As the surly, irritable Bea Arthurish Rosemary, Karen Koenig became a solid foil to her husband Drew Smylie’s Bernie. Smylie’s Bernie kept me interested because he had me wondering two things. Was he in the early stages of dementia or has he been henpecked all these years that he has chosen to give up on his equal relationship in his marriage to Rosemary and just lets her dominate and rule the roost? Rosemary has some excellent one-line zingers she flings around the room but, when I could hear Koenig, she just merely threw them away and didn’t allow for the comic effect to hit the audience. There were moments where Smylie’s Bernie made me pay attention to what he might or could have said to the domineering Rosemary. In the second act, just as Rosemary and Bernie are leaving after dinner, I didn’t catch what Smylie had said most of the time.
Final Comments: I do hope these vocal delivery issues can be addressed and rectified immediately for future performances. We need comedies like ‘Christmas Spirit’ to remind us not to allow our lives to pass us because the most important message of this play – family comes first at all costs no matter what has occurred.
Running time: approximately two hours with one intermission.
‘The Christmas Spirit’ runs December 3, 8, 9, 10, 15 and 16 at 8 pm and December 4, 11 and 17 at 2 pm. All performances take place at the Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Road. For tickets, visit theatrescarborough.com or call 416-267-9292.
‘The Christmas Spirit’ by Frederick Stroppel by Scarborough Theatre Guild
Produced by Darlene Thomas
Directed by Kevin Shaver
Stage Manager: Wendy Miller
(plus an array of volunteer individuals behind the scenes)
Actors: Susan Sanders, Scott Simpson, Julie Jarrett, Karen Koenig, Drew Smylie, Mike Doucette, Mallory Holmes, Alan Maynes, Brad Finch.