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Review: ‘Peekaboo! A Nativity Play’ at the Hub Theatre

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Want to wish yourself a Merry Little Christmas and a Happy New Year in a new way? Then for those with a bent for the uncommon, consider taking in a contemporary retelling of the Biblical Nativity story that honors the traditional New Testament birth of Jesus story, delivers fresh insights that are well-tagged to our current moments in time, and provides some broadly comic flourishes. Let’s add, there are plenty of well-recognized holiday musical carols, although with lyrics rejiggered to match the modern outlook of the retelling.

Katie Jeffries Zelonka and Robert Bowen Smith. Photograph courtesy of The Hub Theatre.

What is it? It is a genuine, heartfelt commissioned work from the Hub Theatre: Peekaboo! A Nativity Play. It was written by local playwright Anne M. McCaw.

Directed by the Hub’s Helen R. Murray, there is a sweet humanity, a longed-for simplicity, to the Hub’s production of Peekaboo! A Nativity Play. McCaw’s script is clearly based upon and reliving the scriptures. Add Murray’s caring guidance, and Jonathan Feuer’s estimable, solid work as music director/developer of the original arrangements (generally for acoustic guitars) of more than a half dozen classic Christmas tunes, this production focuses on the youthful, human naiveté of two perplexed parents-to-be, Mary and Joseph, as they come to terms with Divine intervention in their lives.

Along their quite unexpected divinely inspired path, the couple learns what it means to become new parents of a very special baby born to try to bring renewed hope to an extremely conflicted world. On their journey, they’re confronted with attempted misdeeds of a paranoid King Herod and his children (with Brooklyn kind-of accents no less), the stresses of living up to what Angel Gabriel has announced to them, and a whole bunch of sassy, talking-back farm animals as well as an anthropomorphic tree. Oh, let’s not forget some perplexed Wise Men and a rather annoying Little Drummer Boy.

The production unfolds as a play-within-a play. Folk mill about the stage, warming up for the actual show and making sure the technical aspects of the stage are set and ready ( a bit of tightening would be warranted as the run continues). Guitars are strum, a trumpet is tested, even a triangle heard. (OK, I thought of a comfy The Fantasticks, or perhaps a familiar early work of Stephen Schwartz). The production then settles into the Nativity story with Angel Gabriel making his appearance as narrator and character.

What makes Peekaboo! distinctive? Mary is not a secondary presence, meekly accepting what has happened to her through God’s intervention. As comfortably portrayed by Katie Jeffries Zelonka, Mary is a determined, feisty teen with a visible knack for the dramatic and a dash of a adolescent prickliness. Yet, no matter what the script asks of her, Zelonka gives her character just a big, big heart. She does not “act” artificially.

As Joseph, Robert Bowen Smith gives his portrayal a youthful slacker aura. At first he’s overwhelmed, annoyed and puzzled at what God has intended. There is a teen’s pique to him. Then without losing his youthful spirit, he matches Zelonka’s big heart, aiming to protect his new child from near-by evil forces. Zelonka and Smith also have a great go at being overly tired travelers in search of a nice bed-and-breakfast and having to settle for something much more earthy.

Anderson Wells (a robustly home-spun Angel Gabriel who could give Angel Clarence from It’s Wonderful Life a run for his money), Jacob Yeh (a loud, bully of a King Herod along with a range of comically accomplished other roles), Sophie Schulman (Drummer Boy among other humor-driven characters), and Rose McConnell (Tree and numerous roles), are key to the full enjoyment of Peekaboo! A Nativity Story. As an ensemble they provide work, especially as schemers, to bring them good notice. (Though several comically tinged moments such as an altercation between the Three Wise Men and Herod’s Three Sons did go long and over done with a camp, slap-stick style.)

One other note: the audience has a critical part to play in the production beyond sitting. Peekaboo! is a community effort with audience engagement cheering on the show’s stage characters.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson designed the minimalist set with six strategic hanging white drapes providing wings for the actors to use during the performance. Mary Keegan’s lighting design has one particularly lovely use of a black-out giving a hushed spirituality to the production. The costume design from Amy MacDonald presents a teen grunge look for Mary and Joseph befitting Peekaboo!’s youthful air.

Oh, one last note, the reason for its “Peekaboo” name becomes clear. I will not spoil that, except to suggest that it fits the human qualities of Mary and Joseph and the entire production.

So, for those with a more unconventional streak or wanting something different let me draw your attention to the Hub’s Peekaboo! A Holiday Play. It is a play full of honesty and, dare I say, love (with music and comedy too). It is a show for those ready to forego for 90 minutes, the need for bombast, mobile devices, or batteries.

We are not in an area where the Northern Lights are usual, but the stars in Heaven are. And perhaps the night you see Peekaboo! there will be a small touch of real snow and a chill in the air for this newly created seasonal show.

Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

Peekaboo! A Nativity Play plays through December 24, 2017, at The Hub Theatre performing in The New School – 9431 Silver King Court, in Fairfax, VA. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

NOTE: The “Enclaves” condominium construction next to The New School parking lot is nearing completion. There is plenty of parking, but be alert.

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