Around this time of the year, it’s quite possible to experience what I like to call ‘Christmas-themed theatre overload.’ After all there’s a plethora of productions of A Christmas Carol to choose from in our area, plenty of holiday concerts, and Nutcracker productions galore. For something slightly different, and definitely a bit off-kilter, one might consider viewing Grain of Sand Theatre’s production of You Can’t Get a Decent Margarita at the North Pole now playing at The Shop at Fort Fringe. While the acerbic play, written by Matt Hanf, is far from perfect, this production is definitely deserving of an audience thanks to some fine direction by Sara Bickler, and quite solid performances from the five-member cast backed by minimal, but professional production values.
We meet the annoyed Rudolph (John Stange), who has far from a perfect track record as far as behavior goes, on the job at the North Pole and quickly learn he has a contentious relationship with the ultra-perky, UC Berkeley-educated assistant to Santa, Rita (Christine Lange). Rita is pining for Santa (Carl Brandt Long), who is in a difficult marriage with an unhappy Mrs. Claus (Marjorie, played by Heather Whitpan). Mrs. Claus has taken up a new hobby (learning to shoot a gun) and is having a bit of a relationship on the side with the Tooth Fairy (Ryan Sellers). When all of these conflicts come to a head, things get particularly explosive as they all end up on a beach together in Mexico.
Hanf’s tale starts from an interesting point – the idea that all is not wonderful at one of the happiest places on Earth, but the script begins to suffer when too many plot lines are introduced. If he thinks about streamlining the story and focusing on just one or two conflicts, he may be on to something quite good. In the play, several characters’ secrets are revealed/found out one by one. After all has been revealed, it can feel like one has seen the same scenario played out more times than is probably necessary or desirable. Still, the quirky dialogue, allusions to contemporary social issues (for example, union struggles), make this script palpable.
Actress-turned-director Bickler is mostly successful in further focusing all of the plotlines and her staging makes good use of the small stage. She’s able to keep the action moving and brings out the best of the cast. Stange and Lange, as Rudolph and Rita respectively, are both comedic and heartbreaking and give the standout performances. Stange’s classically-infused take on the disgruntled reindeer is an interesting one and largely works. Lange, as Rita, does well with several musical interludes and is quite adept at keeping it perky and cute without being too grating and is believable when her character takes a dark turn. Carl Brandt Long also proves his comedy chops as he takes on Santa and achieves considerable success when playing off other characters. Whitpan and Sellers are at their best when playing off one another when the Tooth Fairy teaches Marjorie to fire a gun, but seem to be slightly out of their leagues in the larger ensemble scenes at the end of the play.
The bare-bones production features a holiday-themed set by Kristina Nelson that can quickly be transformed into a Mexican beach with a prop or two. Timothy Nielsen’s minimal lighting design fits well with the bare-bones approach to staging the show and is quite effective. Carl Brandt Long proves he’s multi-talented. In addition to playing Santa himself, he contributes solid fight choreography to this piece, which is integral to the success of the final scenes. His sound design, featuring holiday music, is also fitting for the tone of the play.
The emerging Grain of Sand Theatre prides itself on producing high-quality theatre for low prices. If this production is any indication, the company is well on its way to bringing good theatre to audiences that might not be willing to spend hours in some of the more traditional and established theatres. Bickler and company have demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with in the ever-growing grassroots DC theatre scene.
You Can’t Get a Decent Margarita at the North Pole plays through December 23, 2012, at Grain of Sand Theatre at The Shop at Fort Fringe – 607 New York Avenue, NW in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.