Eat your heart out, Christmas Carol. Hang up your dancing shoes, Nutcracker. Change the channel on reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s Christmas in July in Shepherdstown, as the Contemporary American Theater Festival, well, christens what I would advocate as a new holiday classic.
I refer, of course, to A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale, by Michael Weller. Set, in fact, on Christmas, in a post-apocalyptic North America, among the very odd denizens of an industrial ruin called Toppledon, the play is what Weller calls “surreal slapstick.” Surreal, I will grant, absurdist even, slapstick not so much (at least perhaps until a double half moon toward the end of act two), though there are moments that generate well-deserved laughs. Weller’s description of the piece as “Fred Flintstone meets Monty Python, with visits to Mad Max and Ubu Roi” fits pretty nicely.
At the outset, the members of the McMoley clan are trimming their scrawny Christmas tree, amidst scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen’s assemblage of mismatched junk the McMoleys have plucked from the ruins and a tent that later undergoes a dramatic expansion. Shananana (Kate Udall), who can make a bad song out of any situation, mangles Christmas carols as she decorates. Her husband Mac (Lou Sumrall) – perhaps he is what Weller had in mind with the Fred Flinstone analogy – the head of the long over-the-hill McMoley family Christian rock band, waxes patriarchal. Their son Frizzby (Reece Santos), dumber than any post, communicates well only with dogs. Daughter Zazu (Sarah Sun Park), a hottie with attitude, ultimately turns out to be the smartest of the lot. Costume designer Peggy McKowen puts them all in outfits somewhere between Mad Max and hippie chic.
In comes municipal bureaucrat Lucius Van GoGo (Michael Rogers), in a head-to-toe navy pinstripe outfit, bringing a seemingly pathetic refugee Shimeus (Wade McCollum) to share the McMoleys’ space. Equipped with the magic, magnetism, and malignity of a mythical trickster figure, Shimeus begins to take over, bit by bit. If he acts like he owns the place, it’s because, as it turns out, he does. What are the McMoleys to do?
McCollum’s performance as Shimeus nearly takes over the show. His amazing vocal, physical, and emotional range allow Shimeus to entice, outmaneuver, and for most of the proceedings, dominate everyone else. The other cast members also create distinct, vibrant characters who make the most of their moments to shine, which Weller gives them in abundance. Udall and Park have a particularly memorable sequence in the second act when they turn the tables on Mac’s and Shimeus’ illusions of male dominance.
Director Ed Herendeen not only keeps the pace moving smartly but enables the credibly incredible plot, characters, and tone of the play to draw the audience into Weller’s weird world (well, not the entire audience – there was some attrition noticeable after intermission; those who left missed some of the afternoon’s best material). There were some delightful and telling touches in the production design. As Shimeus encroaches further and further into the McMoleys’ space, for example, a line of traffic cones expands, each time with larger cones, on one occasion moved into place by a radio-controlled model front-end loader making a sparkling cameo appearance.
David Remedios’ sound design is a major player in creating the atmosphere of the show, from the pre-show selection of electronic Christmas carols, through dog barks, to a potpourri of noises to accompany the goings-on. Tony Galaska’s lighting design is well coordinated with the sound and action, notably including changing effects inside the tent, colors on a translucent panel behind one of the audience seating banks, and at one point glowing blue footprints on the stage floor.
Weller has a serious point in mind behind all the absurdity. In his program note, he mentions that the germ of the idea for the play was a longstanding concern about the potential of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to lead to World War III, which he has generalized into a broader allegorical narrative of prejudices, superstitions, and the truly psychotic nature of the current political scene. This narrative becomes more apparent as the show goes on, culminating in a moment in which the characters put the MAD back in mutually assured destruction.
In its off-center way, A Welcome Guest remains a Christmas show of sorts, ultimately both ominous and cheerful. Given the quality of the acting and production values, it takes the audience on a crazy journey worth making.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale plays through July 28 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the venue being Marinoff Theater on the Shepherd University campus, 22 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV. For tickets, call 800-999-2283 (CATF), extension 1, or go online.