Shakespeare Orange County's annual "A Shakespearean Christmas," at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, is one of those cheery yuletide events where cast members serve you goodies and warm cider after the show. Company member and director Michael Nehring was serving cider Thursday, and everyone had the same question.
Why is this show closing down after this run, which ends Sunday?
Nehring seemed a tad puzzled himself, and the best he could say was, "It felt like the right time."
It doesn't feel that way to us. Since 1992, this has been perhaps the most literate, goofy and personal Christmas offering by any theater in the Southland, an impressionistic and breezy sampling of appropriate readings not just from Shakespeare, but embracing everything from the book of Luke to an Anne Frank Christmas memory, from Virgil to Ogden Nash.
It has seemed through its seven years to be the best kind of theater-troupe Christmas card come to life. Who stops sending Christmas cards, after sending such pretty ones for so many years?
Nehring did add, between cider pourings, that the group might do a single "Shakespearean Christmas" evening in coming years, but nothing, apparently, like what we have now.
And what we have now remains perfectly balanced between the jolly, the wistful, the impassioned and the silly. The evening's early portion is given over to Shakespeare, and the readings here are sometimes more powerful than is sometimes the case with Shakespeare Orange County's full Shakespeare productions.
Eve Himmelheber, in one of several memorable contributions by a truly vivacious and intelligent actress, delivers Juliet as if we had never heard from her before. Later, in perhaps the evening's most haunting musical moment, Himmelheber and Nehring harmonize on an (uncredited) resonant setting of Shakespeare's great humanistic ode, "What a piece of work is man."
More moving still--and as indicative as anything of how thoughtful this performed anthology is--the versatile Tamiko Washington becomes elderly ex-slave Harriett Ann Jacob, observing a Southern Christmas as she was in a hide-out, eluding her slave masters.
The show's centerpiece is the group's garrulous miming of a scene from Charles Dickens' "Pickwick Papers," in which Mr. Pickwick leads a group of increasingly drunk friends to a country home in a bouncy coach. It seems to be funnier this year than ever.
There's also the inevitable bits of in-crowd carrying-on, like we're dropping in at the office party, when company artistic director Thomas F. Bradac appears on the stairs as Santa during a rousing reading of Clement C. Moore's timeless "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Bradac, still with the actor inside him, can't resist indulging in a bit of King Lear howling on the heath. We're happy he does.
There is some unevenness in the ensemble this year, and whether this was momentary, or something else, is hard to tell.
While Himmelheber, Washington and Chris Du Val (whose rendering of Nash confirms him as an unusually gifted actor) especially shine, company veteran Carl Reggiardo seemed tired and out-of-sync for much of the evening (though his drunk bit in "Pickwick" remains jolly).
There may, after all, be an over-familiarity with this anthology, and perhaps it's time indeed to take a break. But only for a year, please. We need a little of this kind of Christmas.
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* "A Shakespearean Christmas," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange. 8 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday. $16-$20. Ends Sunday. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
A Shakespeare Orange County production. Directed by Michael Nehring. With Thomas F. Bradac, Craig Brown, Chris Du Val, Eve Himmelheber, John Frederick Jones, Michael Nehring, Carl Reggiardo, John Shouse, Tamiko Washington and Peter Westenhofer. Set: Craig Brown. Lights: Paul Dedoes.