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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Fascinating Production of Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home

Also see Richard's reviews of Laughter on the 23rd Floor, john & jen and Valhalla

Long Christmas Ride Home
Nick Sholley with puppet Stephen
Once again we have a drama about a dysfunctional family in Paula Vogel's ninety-minute one-act play at the Magic Theatre through June 11. Dubbed by Ms. Vogel as her "love poem to San Francisco," this lyrical and haunting new work combines live actors and Bunraku puppets to portray a love strong enough to reach beyond death to heal the inescapable legacies of childhood.

The Long Christmas Ride Home premiered at the Trinity Repertory Theatre during the summer of 2003 and transferred to the Vineyard Theatre in New York in November 2003 with Randy Graff and Mark Blum in the lead roles.  The New York critics gave it positive reviews.

Director Basil Twist has assembled an excellent cast of six actors to play interesting characters in his captivating production. The puppetry is also by Mr. Twist and it is fascinating to watch the six persons operating the Bunraku puppets interacting with the live performers, giving a rich, bewitching imagery to the play.   Shamisen player Philip Flavin also gives a wonderful Japanese feel about the intriguing drama on what happen on a fateful night during the long Christmas ride home.

Paula Vogel's drama opens on a middle-class family from suburban Washington D.C. driving home from their grandfather's house outside of the city.  The interesting group includes a mother and father, played by Julia Brothers and Steve Irish, with three children in the back seat represented by the Bunraku puppets.  It is an absorbing scene that looks as if they are riding in a closed automobile.

Mother and father are in a crumbling marriage since father is involved with a much younger woman and can think only of devouring his lover. The mother is resigned but scornful since she knows of the affair. The lyrical dialogue of the mother, who also uses the third person to the audience, is lovely, as she says, "He must think I am retarded./Does he think I don't know/Where he is on his so called Business Trips?/ When she was a much younger wife/She had tracked her husband/To a motel room where she could stand outside.

Julia Brothers and Steve Irish skillfully narrate much of the first half of the story as they go from direct address of the audience to literary dialogue among all of the characters in the car.  The children in the backseat are absorbing life-size Bunraku puppets with black puppeteers crouched on the floor as if an addition to their bodies. The puppeteers use children's voice and we realize each has a separate and distinct character.

The mother is a lapsed Catholic and the father is an assimilated Jew who goes to a Unitarian Universalist Church which makes them "Uni-Unis." There is a wonderful flashback of the family at the Christmas Eve service when the minister, played by Jess Curtis, gives a lecture with slides of Japanese culture.  Nine-year-old Stephen discovers the fascination of the Eastern culture.  We also find out he is more interested in boys then girls.  Twelve-year-old Rebecca looks at the pitiful pockmarked faced boys in the pews and wonders why they are no longer Catholic. The littlest, 7-year-old Claire, does not know what to make of the Unitarian service since she wants to sings Christmas carols.  The mother is asked why they are at a Unitarian Universalist meeting and she replies that the church is non-denominational, which means "When you are older, you will decide for yourself what you believe in." The children's voices are well done by Nick Sholley as Stephen, Lisa Anne Porter as Rebecca, and Jennifer Clare as Claire.

Another flashback is brilliantly played when the children and parents visit the mother's grandparents who give out gifts that have been salvaged from years past and mean nothing to the children. Here a violent scene occurs between the father and the father-in-law played by Jess Curtis. Both Julia Brothers and Steve Irish give vibrant performances.

The long ride back affects the future of the children and almost ends in a tragedy. The last part of the drama is about the three children all grown up.  Nick Sholley as the adult Stephen, Lisa Anna Porter as the grown up Rebecca, and Jennifer Clare as the older Claire give absorbing solo performances. They all have damaged personalities.  Nick Sholley is superb as the homosexual who has been dumped by his lover. A shadow scene that takes place in a sex orgy room where the character gets AIDS is striking. Lisa Anna Porter gives a potent performance as a woman who has been thrown out of her male lover's home. Jennifer Clare has become a lesbian and she too has been forsaken by her lover. Jess Curtis is very good as the minister talking about Far Eastern philosophy to the non-interested family. A quasi-Asian dance by Jess Curtis with choreography by Joe Goode is thrilling during the adult part of the drama. 

This well written literary play generates a strong emotional response to all of the characters.  The set is simple for the three-sided theatre with interesting shadow plays going on when the children become adults telling the audience of their problems.  The Japanese style music by Philip Flavin on the shamisen is beguiling. The puppets by Basil Twist are unbelievably expressive despite their impassive faces. He makes the production a mesmerizing night at the theater.

The Long Christmas Ride Home runs through June 11 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Laguna at Marina Blvd, San Francisco.   For tickets please call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org

The Magic Theatre opens its 2006-2007 opens on September 23rd with the Bay Area premiere of Sam Shepard's God of Hell.


Photo: Bill Faulkner


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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