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STAGE REVIEW : 'Festival of Christmas' Offers Holiday Charm

December 08, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

NATIONAL CITY — Most writers dream of creating characters so vivid that they leap off the page. In "A Festival of Christmas," playing at the Lamb's Players Theatre through Dec. 27, the aspiring writer on whom the story pivots experiences this conceit taken to its logical theatrical conclusion.

Initially intimidated by an assignment to write a Christmas story, the writer finds that in an abandoned English coastal inn on Christmas eve, with the smiles of a mysterious young woman to encourage him, his characters walk on stage as quickly as he begins to describe them, sailing right around him and the young woman.

These characters sometimes hesitate or, under David Carminito's careful lighting, "fade" as they wait for the writer to supply the right words. But more often--as is the case in good writing--they talk and act with a life that seems very much their own.

It all adds up to a charming holiday confection, light and bright, studded with carols, dancing and, yes, a few morals, all lightly kneaded in. Subtitled "The Angel's Arms," this play marks the 10th year and the end of the second cycle of five "Festivals" written by Kerry Cederberg, the associate artistic director of Lamb's Players.

Not content to simply stand behind the scenes as author, Cederberg also directed and plays the part of one of her writer's creations--both to good effect. A hint of a smile plays around her ever-so-earnest portrayal of a French lieutenant's woman-type who has haunted the inn in silence for the last 10 Christmas Eves. And as director, she moves her likable cast deftly through the colliding realities of her story within a story.

Much of the play's cleverness lies in this device of colliding realities. The writer, Jeffrey Scott, and the gracious woman whom he assumes is Mrs. Boswell, the person scheduled to show him around the inn, can speak to each other and to the characters without being seen or heard by Scott's creations. This allows them to comment on the story, sometimes replaying conversations with different attitudes as they argue about how the story should progress and whether the writer is being true to himself.

The best part is that Scott and the young woman are not simply observers. They are involved, not only in the outcome but also in the action--which, naturally, is unnoticed by the characters. They join in on some of the singing. And at one point "Mrs. Boswell" helps one of the characters, Charlotte, at the piano, which leads Charlotte's uncle to exclaim proudly that his niece plays as if she has four hands.

The story Scott writes takes place in 1861, allowing for some sumptuous period costumes, which Margaret Neuhoff-Vida obligingly provides. Curiously though, Cederberg sets Scott himself as an Englishman in 1891 for no apparent reason. Certainly, Rick Meads, as the writer, offers no enlightenment as to this choice. From the beginning, he is neither at his ease with the role of the blocked writer or the English accent he affects. He does, however, warm up as the young woman and his creations start taking over.

But then it is hard not to warm up when Deborah Gilmour Smyth glides down a staircase as "Mrs. Boswell." Her delicate white dress suggests that of an angel's, sparkling subtly, as does Smyth in it.

Cederberg isn't the only one in the production wearing more than one hat. Vanda Eggington arranged half the carols--which are quite lovely--and handled the musical direction in addition to playing Charlotte, the inn keeper's funny/sour niece. In most of her productions, Cederberg sets up odd couples. This show teeters with more than its share, beginning with Charlotte's opposite, her sweet sister, which Tracey Kennard handles nicely.

Mike Buckley, who created the cozy set with its own share of magical touches (including a fireplace that lights at the writer's command), shows a definite comic flair as the stuffy visitor who is stranded at the inn with his charming, bubbly fiancee (another opposite, played with infectious enthusiasm by Tess Card). David Cochran Heath provides solidity and heart as a long-awaited sailor and Mark Coterill is appropriately frivolous as his sidekick/friend. Nathan Peirson brings a quiet dignity to his role as proprietor of the inn.

Singing is a must in Cederberg's "Festivals." Happily here the songs from "Carol of the Bells" to "The First Noel" occur quite naturally as do the simple folk rhythms of the choreography by Pamela Turner.

"A FESTIVAL OF CHRISTMAS"

By Kerry Cederberg. Director is Kerry Cederberg. Musical direction by Vanda Eggington. Choreographer is Pamela Turner. Costumes by Margaret Neuhoff-Vida. Set by Mike Buckley. Lighting by David Carminito. Sound by Dave Thayer. With Rick Mead, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Nathan Peirson, Tracey Kennard, Vanda Eggington, Kerry Cederberg, Tess Card, Mike Buckley, Mark Coterill and David Cochran Heath. At 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2. Additional matinees Dec. 20-23, 26-27 at 2. Additional shows Dec. 12 and 19 at 10 a.m. Closes Dec. 27. At the Lamb' Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.

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