Jingle Bell Mock

Rattlebrain Theater should have everything it needs to become a destination for the young and hip, a thronged local hot spot, the kind of place no in-the-know visitor to Denver would think of missing. It's in a great location: the old D&F clock tower, slap-bang in the middle of the 16th Street Mall. The theater is well set up -- small, warm and intimate -- and the troupe's production values are strong. There's an excellent sound system, and someone has done a great job of selecting the between-skits music. Drinks are available. Most of all, the six-person cast is charming and talented. The trouble is, the material is soft.

Santa¹s Big Red Sack begins with a press conference. Santa is thinking about resigning. He's sick of being hounded by the press. Worst of all, lewd photos of him and Mrs. Claus doing it have appeared on the Internet. This isn't hugely inventive, but it's well-executed, with the rest of the cast providing a rhythmic commentary. Then Jane Shirley and Michael O'Shea, supposedly standing on a street corner, give a bouncy, tuneful rendition of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" while offering charitable assistance to everyone who passes by. This includes an addict who needs help lighting his crack pipe and a purse snatcher struggling to get away with his booty. But a thuddingly unfunny sequence follows, set in a department store where Shirley attempts to return a sweater given to her by her sister.

This isn't to say that all the skits fall flat. Some have a reasonably humorous premise, like the one in which an agent (Jeff Kosloski) arrives at the North Pole to negotiate Rudolph's contract, or "A Very NRA Christmas," featuring carols celebrating guns. Some are spiked up by terrific performances: "Two Wise Men Plus One," for example, is enlivened by some fantastic mugging and posing from Christopher Todd Grundy, whose slack-jawed chewing of a cinnamon pretzel can in itself bring down the house. As a redneck Southern family in "Country Buffet," the cast pulls out all the stops, and the results are hilarious. Kosloski is the threatening, horn-rim-spectacled dad; Lisa Rucker exudes malign authority as Mom, and the others become brawling children. Even the really poor skits, like the one about two hammy actors at an audition, have their moments, as when one of the actors' phones rings to the tune of a tinny "There's No Business Like Show Business." As if to prove that it's the group's acting talent rather than the written material that keeps the evening alive, the best moment is provided by Michael O'Shea, who attempts to sing "Jingle Bell Rock" while contending with a recalcitrant sound technician. Like Grundy, O'Shea can spin comic gold out of hay, and his growled "Turn on the microphone" convulses us with laughter.

As for the others, each brings his or her own strength to the show. Derek Hartman has a lunatic, upper-crust grace; Kosloski has the ability to transform from character to character with fullness and authority; Lisa Rucker has a soothing, matronly manner that morphs into screaming, anarchic energy on the instant; and Jane Shirley sports an intense combination of versatility and charm. But some of these actors also developed the material (with Dave Shirley, John Jankow and Kirk Anderson), and they don't seem to know how to bring a scene to a satisfactory close. When the big finish lines include a weird throwaway about honey-covered lesbians and "Does a reindeer shit in the sky?" it's time to call in an outside writer.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman