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A Very Special Holiday Special

The holiday-themed set of short plays is uneven, yet has its charms

Betzy Miller and Julie Cole in one of the highlights of this holiday-themed set of short plays. Photo credit: The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest

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Successfully executing holiday humor is, to me, an almost impossible feat. You're basically given two options of approach: deliver the sort of corny, gentle, observational comedy about the rigors of holiday shopping and family interactions, or, you commit to subverting deeply ingrained traditions aiming to get laughs from audiences breathing a sigh of relief at the air being let out of an exuberantly self-important time of year. Yearly holiday specials on TV achieve the former, while movies like The Ice Harvest -- my favorite Christmas movie, and the late Harold Ramis' last great film -- achieve the latter, mining pitch black comedy out of the Yuletide season.

The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest's production of A Very Special Holiday Special plays like the middle ground between those two extremes, and it suffers a bit for its indecision and hesitant execution. Penned by Mark Harvey Levine, a playwright who specializes in short-form theater, the show is made up of seven comedic shorts that explore various aspects of the holidays. As with any collection of short pieces of entertainment, quality tends to vary. On the night that I attended, opening playlet "Oy Vey Maria" was the weakest of the evening, hurt by an overly broad premise (on the night of Jesus' birth, his guilt-inflicting Jewish grandmother shows up to give Mary a hard time) and some opening night jitters from the performers.

While the rest of the production varies in quality, all of the shorts I saw did a fair shake better than that first one. Oddly enough, as a glib comedy, A Very Special Holiday Special fares best when it errs on the side of sincerity. The second short of the show, "Uncle Charlie Sings," explores the ramifications of an 8-year-old girl learning that Santa's not real; rather than leaning on the easy cringe humor of a kid's hopes being dashed on Christmas Eve, the short becomes unexpectedly touching as the titular Uncle Charlie teaches the girl about the true meaning of Christmas (and the value in lying about Santa).

Other highlights include "A Very Special Hanukkah Special," which sends up It's a Wonderful Life from the perspective of a Jewish man who gets more than he bargained for when he wishes for Hanukkah to be as hugely popular as Christmas; the melancholy "Best Present Ever," featuring a lonely woman celebrating Christmas with just her dog and cat to keep her company; and "Les Miserabelves," a wildly ambitious (and somewhat successful) parody of both Les Misérables and the oddly weighty and grotesque elements of old Rankin/Bass holiday specials.

Along the way, A Very Special Holiday Special is populated with a large ensemble cast of game performers: Curtis Beech, Larry Chandler, Julie Cole, Eric Cuestas-Thompson, Douglas Ernst, Betzy Miller, Karen Noyes, Chelsea Pedro, and Carol Wieltschnig. I especially enjoyed Miller's spirited, unreserved presence, particularly in her role of the energetic, selflessly sweet dog in "Best Present Ever." Like that dog, this show is all over the place, yet that nevertheless endears itself in its own shaggy way.

A Very Special Holiday Special, 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 6 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 10 through Dec. 16, $15-$20, Dukesbay Theater, 508 6th Ave., Tacoma, 360.710.5440, veryspecial.brownpapertickets.com

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