Crafting an original play about the Christmas story for adults is no easy task, but Robert O'Connell has managed just that with The Road to Bethlehem, which deftly uses humor to deliver its ultimately sincere message.
Seekers of the Christ Child are inspired by an angel named Apocrypha (Martha Manning, wearing sensible shoes), and they all make their way to the City of David. Two shepherds, a stonecutter, a Roman soldier, a childless couple, an innkeeper and his drummer-boy son, and the Magi's advance man form loose friendships while they piece together the big-picture meaning of their shared journey.
O'Connell uses contemporary, colloquial language to wry effect. The characters speak offhandedly about the Almighty, quote biblical passages with tongue in cheek ("I'm sore afraid. Are you?") or cite prophecy with a healthy skepticism, then assume mundane, modern-day attitudes toward, say, a discussion on swaddling clothes or gift-giving ("Jewish babies love frankincense").
This revue-style humor sustains more often than not. O'Connell, who also directs, has a very committed ensemble of 16—including the unseen Pat Reilly as the voice of God—who play the gags with a certain measure of understatement, thus avoiding overkill.
Leads Chris Basso and Lane Wright are entertaining as the shepherds Abi and Reuben, who get with the program early on and then drag the others with them, in a kind of structural spin on the Grimms' "Bremen Town Musicians." Greg Welsch is endearing and funny as the stonecutter who sees fit to sober up before making it to the manger, and Wesley Pryor is effective as the serious-minded Roman with a special mission. Familiar community theater faces Michael Roark, Trish Crist and Weldon Stice perform well, plus young Paige Glasser handles two children's roles with poise.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph are never viewed in this telling, and that makes good sense. They remain only figments throughout, with the focus smartly on the Average Joe characters grappling with faith, atonement and the hope for a better world. O'Connell's script nimbly shifts gears at the conclusion, as the waggishness gives way to more appropriate seasonal warmth.
This weekend, after a solid decade of important local theatrical work, Mark Cabus will be presenting the final show from his Green Room Projects production company, his perennial one-man performance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
By fall '09, Cabus will be in a master's directing program, more than likely in Chicago, Boston or on the West Coast. Before that happens, Cabus will finish his undergraduate degree at Belmont University in May, completing a roundabout academic journey that began nearly 30 years ago with stints at East Tennessee State and Milligan College, then continued with conservatory training as an actor. He's also been tapped to supervise the team film project for this year's Nashville Film Festival, so Cabus will have plenty on his plate in the near future.
Meanwhile, A Christmas Carol will provide him with a load of work as a thespian—about three dozen roles, in fact.
"I like doing one-man shows," Cabus says. "They're challenging. I was always a fan of Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness and their one-man movie gigs. To me, that's what an actor does: He plays a whole bunch of different parts."
First mounted in 1998 at the Darkhorse Theater, Cabus' Carol has become a semi-regular holiday favorite in Music City. For the last five years, he's been performing an abbreviated one-hour interactive version in Middle Tennessee schools under the auspices of TPAC Education.
"Externally, the piece hasn't changed a whole lot," says Cabus. "The costumes alter a little over the course of time, as does the furniture. Yet internally, I think it's always different, because every year I'm a different person, and the things that have happened throughout the world have a great deal of effect on how I interpret the play."
Cabus cites the 2001 performance following 9/11 as particularly memorable. "Everyone was dealing with the idea of mortality and how quickly things are taken from us. I think audiences really sought us out that year, looking for some kind of hope."
Cabus believes this year's economic woes may find a thorny resonance, especially through Ebenezer Scrooge's rejection of charitable causes and cavalier talk of prisons and poor houses.
"One of the things people have appreciated about the show," says Cabus, "is the fact that it's not your happy-go-lucky Christmas play. Dickens didn't write it that way. It's a gloomy ghost story, but over the last 100 years it's probably had many simplified re-interpretations that convey a more upbeat perception. The good news is that theatergoers who have seen this show repeatedly seem to find something new in it every time out."
A Christmas Carol runs Dec. 18-21 at Belmont's Black Box Theater.
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