Visiting my daughter and her family after Thanksgiving, I discovered that my two-year-old grandson was entranced by the lights outside of people's houses. He kept wanting to drive or walk down the street and gaze; he couldn't figure out why we couldn't just remove the twinkling strings and take them home with us. At a mall coffee shop with an endless loop of Muzak-y carols, I asked the woman behind the counter if the music wasn't driving her crazy. "I wish every day was Christmas," she said. It all made me think about how cynical I sometimes feel about the season, particularly given all the news accounts regarding whether we'll buy enough junk to boost the economy, and the slew of sentimental and/or would-be funny theatrical offerings I usually endure this time of year. The truth is, part of me loves Christmas lights just as much as two-year-old Clarkie does and thrills every year at having a fragrant green tree in the living room.
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It snowed the night I went to see A Child's Christmas in Wales, the first serious snow of the season, allaying some of the fears I'd had about incipient drought and making the University of Colorado campus white and beautiful. Inside the theater building, they were selling big round cookies — festive, though a bit too sweet — and various hot drinks and allowing audience members to take them into the auditorium. The stage was set for celebration, and Philip Sneed, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's new artistic director, has captured some of the true, pure spirit of Christmas with the festival's first winter production.
Dylan Thomas's famous short story is a series of childhood memories. "I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find," he writes. "In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen." This show gives Thomas's gorgeous and amazing words their due, but "A Child's Christmas" is a short piece, and a simple staged reading wouldn't last even the brief 75 minutes that this production does. Sneed and his cast — actors he'd worked with at Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City, California — created it together, collaboratively and improvisationally, adding movement, mime, songs and words from other sources. Some of these embellishments work well, as when the family passes plates of food around the table in choreographed sequence, moving faster and faster, and then more and more slowly as fatigue and satiation set in. There's also a wonderful moment illustrating Thomas's list of Useless Presents: Orion Pilger, the charming fifth-grader who plays the young Thomas, is swathed by the rest of the cast in sweaters, gloves, scarves, hats and even a nose muff, until he is completely obliterated.
A Child's Christmas in Wales
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through December 24, University Theatre-Mainstage, University of Colorado, Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
Some other bits — particularly in the second act — feel shoehorned in, or a little too cute. The cast actually sings the songs that Thomas mentions in his last paragraph, but this doesn't add anything, since they sing neither particularly well nor particularly badly, and the songs themselves don't deepen the mood. There's a long reading of the section of A Christmas Carol in which Charles Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; as it progresses, a ghostly figure skulks in the shadows, and young Thomas leaves the others clustered around the piano to follow it. I can give this sequence meaning — something about fear of the yawning unknown future, a fear that's partially resolved as the child nestles into his bed later, breathing a few words to "the close and holy darkness" — but I have to work to do it.
Ten-year-old Victoria Capraro plays the other child's roles; the adult actors are Karyn Casl, Timothy Orr, Rebecca Remaly and Gary Wright. Except for Orr, all of them tend to be a bit too broad and twinkly. Wright does have a fine voice for the music of Thomas's words, though, and I'm glad Sneed didn't have his cast attempt a Welsh accent. And then, of course, there's Trefoni Michael Rizzi's set, with its warm lighting adding to the glow of this pleasant contribution to the season.