Getting into a true holiday spirit can be tough in South Florida, where palm trees, expansive beaches and balmy skies signal perpetual summer. Ever-earlier store décor and the incessant push to buy presents – more about commercialism than celebration – can make many of us feel more anxious than festive.
Not to worry. Just squeeze in a trip to Miami’s Arsht Center, where City Theatre has a mood-restoring holiday package called Winter Shorts awaiting anyone in need of belly laughs, tender moments or a reminder of the reasons for the season.
Assembled by artistic director Margaret M. Ledford, the program is just the third edition of Winter Shorts (the last was in 2001). Since 1996, the company has built its reputation and a loyal following through its popular Summer Shorts festivals, but the experience is just as delightful at this time of year. In fact, this Winter Shorts is one of the company’s strongest and most satisfying programs to date.
A half-dozen actors at the top of their game provide one of the great pleasures of watching a collection of short plays, as each creates a host of sometimes wildly different characters.
Margot Moreland, for example, plays a pair of Jewish mothers, a harried shopper who can’t believe the lone salesclerk doesn’t speak much English, and a lisping devil who is decidedly not the best little girl in the world. Dave Corey plays three different dads, but he’s also the tallest elf you’ve ever seen. Diana Garle is a Spanish-speaking clerk, a woman with a bad case of the blues on New Year’s Eve, a sardonic aunt, an eccentric and incessantly talkative moviegoer and a new mom to a little guy named Jesus.
Rita Joe is a tough New Yorker, a heartbroken guy’s surprising soulmate, a mom with secrets, a wise “man” and a woman who really does believe in miracles. Jovon Jacobs is a depressed Santa, a stopped-in-time grown man who still believes in St. Nick, a guy reevaluating everything about his life and a percussionist sent away by a controlling first-time grandma. Alex Alvarez is a nervous boyfriend, a Valentine’s Day hater, another wise man and a Tooth Fairy with one divine sense of style.
Winter Shorts kicks off with Staci Swedeen’s “Feliz Navidad,” directed by Vanessa Elise, in which Moreland’s beyond-weary shopper has a last straw moment courtesy of Lourdes (Garle), the clerk with merely un poquito of English.Next is Patrick Gabridge’s “Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” staged by Deborah Kondelik, which features a 30-year-old, living-at-home, Santa-believing guy named Jeffrey (Jacobs). Mom (Rita Joe) and Dad (Corey) have kept the truth about the Jolly Old Soul from Jeffrey his entire life, but when Dad decides to ‘fess up, shocking secrets come spilling out.
In the Kondelik-directed “The Miracle of Chanukah” by Sheri Wilner, a bickering family’s ritual of expressing thanks for “miracles” – generally, just examples of good luck during the past year – takes a turn when son Ryan (Alvarez) brings his girlfriend Leila (Rita Joe) along. Her story of a true miracle, sorrowful but full of beautiful imagery, has an effect on the family, but not the one she anticipates.
Amanda Keating’s “this movie,” staged by Ledford, features two lonely strangers spending Thanksgiving at a movie theater in their Massachusetts hometown. Stuart (Jacobs) is escaping, avoiding his parents at a time when everything in his life seems to be up in the air. Chatty Joanie (Garle) shows up with bags full of food and a determination to engage with the only other person in the theater – which turns out to be a good thing for both of them.
Ledford turns Gina Femia’s “Fly, Baby,” set on New Year’s Eve 2016 as the country is about to enter the Trump era, into a celebration of hope over despair. Ariel (Garle) reaches a breaking point as she sits on the roof of her apartment building, and her pal Miranda (Rita Joe) can’t seem to stop her downward spiral. Then the action freezes, and Santa (Jacobs) and the Tooth Fairy (Alvarez) supply some magic, just in the nick of time.
Ashley Lauren Rogers’ “Becky’s Christmas Wish,” also staged by Ledford, is a perfectly savage little comedy. When an Elf (Corey) appears to tell a delighted kid named Becky (Moreland) that she’ll be granted any wish her heart desires, her giddy choice is a shocker. And no matter how the Elf tries to distract or dissuade her, laser-focused Becky sticks to her guns.
Cassie M. Seinuk’s “Occupy Hallmark,” staged by Ivan Lopez, features Alvarez as Moose, a drunken romantic with a shattered heart. As he rants about Valentine’s Day outside a closed Hallmark store, his childhood friend Salty (Rita Joe) appears.They talk, commiserate and discover there’s someone right for just about anybody.
The program’s pièce de résistance, also staged by Ledford, is Mark Harvey Levine’s “Oy Vey Maria.” Irreverent and hilarious, the play imagines the birth of the baby Jesus as the occasion for a barrage of complaints from Mary’s Jewish mother Ann (Moreland). Featuring the entire cast plus interns, “Oy Vey” is a wildly funny take on the nativity story, anachronistic and crazy and completely delightful.
City Theatre’s designers make Winter Shorts lovely to look at and listen to. Jodi Dellaventura’s adaptable set features oversized snowflakes, packages and candy canes, so the audience feels festive before one word is uttered, and lighting designer Eric Nelson underscores the tone of each play with his beautifully colorful work. Ellis Tillman’s costumes are stylish, smart and witty, and until you’ve seen the tall Alvarez in heels and a tooth-crowned tiara, you haven’t lived. Matt Corey’s sound design, with its varied holiday mood music to link the plays, is a vital part of the Winter Shorts experience.
It’s true that money and time can be in short supply around the holidays. But giving yourself the gift of Winter Shorts is a joyous investment.
City Theatre’s Winter Shorts Festival, Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20), through Dec. 23. Cost:$39 to $54. Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.
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