Stellar performances bring Holy Mo! A Christmas Show to life

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      By Lucia Frangione. Directed by Kerry Van Der Griend. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on December 2. Continues until December 31

      Fed up with Christmas commercialism? Don’t like religious reverence either? Then step right up for Holy Mo! A Christmas Show and watch this ragged band of troubadours turn the Nativity story on its head.

      Playwright Lucia Frangione scored a memorable hit with the first Holy Mo! back in 1997, a vaudevillian retelling of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Now, travelling performers Follie, Buffoona, and Guff are back, and at the top of the show, Follie gets her Christmas wish: an audience. The troupe gets down to work, dramatizing the conception and birth of Christ (here called Manny, short for Emmanuel, in one of many rechristenings).

      Frangione’s wildly playful script is a collage of rhymed narration, character-swapping, and song, with pop-culture references to everything from The Matrix and Shrek to Donald Trump. The troupe’s language is rich in wordplay, and there are differing opinions about contemporary Christmas traditions. Hence, Herod, King of the Juice (“I’m a secular Heebee who eats bacon,” he says), wears a Santa hat. His “consciously uncoupled” celebrity wife, Madge, stands in for the Magi. Mary is a nerdy teenage virgin attired in high tops, a pleated plaid skirt, and glasses with an eyepatch on one lens. On her three-day journey to Bethlehem, she’s accompanied by a red-nosed reindeer. Though Frangione takes us to some dark places, the sense of whimsy in the performance style sets the dominant tone.

      Kerry Van Der Griend directs a powerhouse trio. Frangione is a commanding presence as Follie, who takes the roles of Herod and a hilarious Mary. Anita Wittenberg’s facial and physical expressiveness makes her Guff a winner, whether she’s reluctantly ringing sleighbells or butching it up as the monosyllabic Joseph. Relative newcomer Jess Amy Shead’s savvy characterizations and beautiful singing make her a talent to watch. And all three throw themselves into Andrea Loewen’s choreography, culminating in a hilarious fake break-dancing bit late in the show.

      Heipo Leung’s set and Jess Howell’s props creatively support the play’s constant shape-shifting, as the troupe repeatedly refashion their caravan and themselves. Amy McDougall’s costumes are detailed and witty; I especially liked her use of tea cozy hats. John Webber’s lighting enhances the magic.

      And magic is what the season—and the theatre—is all about, right?