By Marcus Youssef. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. On the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre on Wednesday, November 27. Continues until December 22
Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef’s holiday show has a title that’s a mashup of treacly Christmas-movie and Hallmark-card sentiment—but is more than a little tongue-in-cheek.
’Tis the season to put the funk back into family dysfunction, after all. And the family here is dealing with a new divorce, a teen glued to her cellphone, and an Alzheimer’s-riddled grandmother who has come back from the grave to resolve her daughter’s deep-seated resentment toward her.
Like the Sufjan Stevens songs that serve as the live soundtrack, the holidays are complex. Enter a Christmas play that’s as offbeat, and messed-up, as the Snoopy-unicorn stuffie that adorns the last-minute tannenbaum here.
It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle might be a little too darkly funny—or possibly too painfully familiar—for some. But it should appeal to anyone whose traumas have ranged from the inconsequential (forgetting to defrost the Christmas-morning croissants, or getting a stick-insect terrarium instead of an Xbox) to the life-changing (being shunted from one parent’s house to the other’s when all you want to do is play with your new presents or watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” with your mom and dad).
The story is as unconventional in its delivery as it is in its subject matter, though there are cleverly warped allusions to some of your favourite holiday classics. Instead of It’s a Wonderful Life’s Clarence, an angel named Salena (Ghazal Azarbad) guides the late Esther (Nicola Lipman). A former hedge-fund manager, Salena is a double-caffeinated 30-something who wears a tropical-print suit to police the gates to the afterlife’s endless beaches. She communicates via a magic cellphone, and her ringtone is Aretha Franklin's “Respect” in tribute to the new boss upstairs, the Queen of Soul herself. And Youssef treats a Christmas Carol–like trip back to face the past as a whacked-out Mortal Kombat–style video game, in which the family has to pass certain levels, and avatars like Mary and Joseph repeat phrases like “What are we supposed to do with the myrrh?”
At the same time, Youssef’s sometimes witty, sometimes goofy script celebrates the drive for diversity and secularity at Christmastime, even as he sends it up. While workaholic mom Miriam (Jennifer Lines) is trying to rekindle her family’s Jewish traditions, her son Simon (a nicely naturalistic Glen Gordon) has to play the butt of the Loch Ness monster in his school’s absurdly inclusive Everyculture Holiday Dance.
All of the risk-taking would fall off the rails if the cast weren’t so strong here—especially the women. As grandma-ghost Esther, Lipman gives the show its acerbically honest heart. Lines’s Miriam suggests the raging stress beneath her firm surface. (Listen to her clenched, oft-repeated phrase “We need to talk.”) And young Matreya Scarrwener taps daughter Cleo’s raw, roller-coaster teen emotions. Youssef has an understanding of the exquisite pain of both parenting teens and being a teen that you have to have lived to know.
Adding to the multitasking here, the performers intermittently drop everything to pick up instruments and sing Stevens’s moody posthipster Christmas classics—with dad Jovanni Sy on piano, Azarbad on keytar, and Lines playing a mean acoustic guitar.
Lauchlin Johnston’s dizzying mountain of off-kilter, silver-foil-wrapped boxes (which do double duty as screens and steps) makes another artistic leap, but it gives the show the right sense of techy unreality and monumental disorientation.
The script doesn’t try to wrap everything up in a tidy bow—thank God, Jehovah, Aretha, or whatever you want to call your personal deity. It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle follows its own wonky rhythms and should ultimately win over anyone who has to double up on the Ativan to get through the season.