Review: The 12 Dates of Christmas AND Stealing Baby Jesus by Austin Playhouse
by Brian Paul Scipione
Austin Playhouse found a new venue at Trinity Street Playhouse in time to put on two holiday offerings, and more are planned for early spring. They chose to do two one-act, one-actor plays that explore the impact of Christmas on the lives of two very different women. Or put another way, how the experiences of their lives impact their views on Christmas. The 12 Dates of Christmas by Ginna Hoben stars Lara Toner Haddock and was directed by Cyndi Williams. Stealing Baby Jesus by Bernadette Nason stars the author and was directed by Ben Wolfe.
In both cases, what may be the world’s most famous holiday is of extreme significance to the characters. It has become a barometer of happiness and self-fulfillment, implying that the failure to have a perfect, magical, Christmas is a harrowing indictment on one’s success as a self-actualized person. Is this interpretation a bit much? Perhaps I'm reading far too much into it, especially considering that both plays are sentimental comedies full of mirthful anecdotes, clever word play, hilarious over-the-top characters, and touching emotional moments. Yet, the fact remains: this trope provides the tension of the stories.
At the opening of each play the lead character professes her deep and abiding love for Christmas, only to reveal seconds later that she has come to hate or fear it. Both these women have complicated relationships with their families, spurring them never to give up on the ideal Christmas — and in a deeper sense, never to give up on themselves. And finally, tying it all up nicely, both stories are intricately entwined with Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
Both plays resonate with the audience, for after all, the stress of having “a perfect Christmas” is a universal theme. Many, especially in the United States, sidestep that issue, instead gauging their Christmases by the number of presents given and received, the amount of food eaten, and the amount of Christmas entertainment consumed (both in person and televised).
These plays are not about this. Their stories are about a personal relationship with Christmas, something both elusive and ineluctable that cannot be yet must be explained. After all, for many of us, Christmas is our first true experience of magic. That joyous magic is so pure and wonderful that we are fated to pursue it for the rest of our lives.
The 12 Dates of Christmas is described as a “modern alternative to the old standards of the holiday season.” A woman's love for the holidays is shattered when she witnesses her fiancé kissing another woman at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The concept is an alternative to old holiday standards, but it's also perfectly aligned with the modern-day rom com. Mary tells the story of unsuccessful forays back into the dating world, one holiday at a time: her perfect Christmas date (that is unfortunately too soon), her awkward New Year’s Eve friend-date, her tipsy St. Patrick’s Day adventure, and so on.
The 12 Dates of Christmas had its world premiere in 2010 at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, and the plot line and jokes of the play still feel very much of that time period. One can easily imagine this play as a movie starring Drew Barrymore as the kooky but sentimental woman looking for love in all the wrong places. It has comforting but dated tropes: weddings are horrible for a single woman, the best friend falls in love with the lead, various outrageous rules about dating prevail, the very next guy must be for rebound purposes only, and the old classic: musician boyfriends are flakes.
Austin Playhouse’s one-woman performance features Lara Toner Haddock. Haddock, a long-time member of the Actors' Equity Association, has long been active in the Austin theater scene in a variety of positions including actor, director, writer, producer, and artistic director of the Austin Playhouse theater company. Her performance ranges from casual to frenetic. In the first minutes of the play she avows how much she loves Christmas, only to flip the script and quickly declaim how much she hates the holiday. Her character feels she's on trial wherever she goes, judged by family members, friends, dates, and wedding guests. As she unravels her tales of twelve different dates, she punctuates each story by adding a whimsical yet symbolic ornament to the Christmas tree in the corner.
Haddock does a great job of altering her voice and mannerisms to play the other roles. Embodying the aggressive, matchmaking Aunt Sally she employs an over-the-top accent reminiscent of Kristen Wiig’s SNL characters. Haddock has more casual moments as she moves the story along, giving the play a chatty, confessional feel rather than limiting it to a recreation of the story’s anecdotes. There is very little sense of place in the story except for her account of meeting a man on the subway. The script rambles along like bar-room conversation, making it a little difficult to believe that so many social missteps and near-hits could happen to a single person in a single year. When the year rolls back around to the Christmas holiday for the second time, Dicken’s' A Christmas Carol enters the story, bringing the theme of redemption that both the character and the audience are aching to experience. Herein lies the key to Haddock’s performance. Her character has changed dramatically (pardon the pun),and this is illustrated in the play’s final moments. Haddock takes everyone on a journey by internally going through one herself.
There is certainly no one more fitting to play the role of Bernadette Nason than the author herself. Stealing Baby Jesus is described as a quest “to find the perfect Christmas.” Nason tells us the stories of four very different Christmases in very different places: Winchester, England; Tripoli, Libya; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Austin, Texas, USA. Nason is known for her one-person rendition of A Christmas Carol, as well as for her shows Tea in Tripoli, Further Tales from Tripoli, Iced Tea in Texas, and Dinner in Dubai. In addition to her writing, acting, and storytelling, she's ion the touring roster of the Texas Commission on the Arts. Stealing Baby Jesus first debuted at the Hyde Park Theatre in December of 2015.
Clearly at home on the stage, Nason captivates the audience from the very first line. Speaking of her relationship with Christmas, she quips “I don’t hate it. I struggle with it.” Recalling the news that her hometown was vying for the title of “Most Christmassy Town in Britain," she's spurred to recollect her attempts to ‘save’ Christmas. Her storytelling has a wonderful cadence and seamless transitions from country to country and holiday to holiday. She gleefully points out the differences between British English and American English, her accent remaining as distinctive as it was when she left England. (‘Sweets, by the way, means candy.’) Her story about Christmas in her hometown of Winchester involves her ironic attempt to save her family’s personal Christmas by doing what may well have been the most un-Christmassy thing ever: stealing a baby Jesus from a local store. The tale is comedy gold. It sets the high standard that the rest of the play maintains. Nason invites the audience to “come with me for a walk down misery lane.”
Her next stop is Libya. There she upholds her own personal tradition of reading A Christmas Carol, which gives her the startling realization that Tripoli in the 1980s was not that different from London a century earlier. She attempts to make a Christmas tree but has only cardboard to work with, an interesting metaphor for her life at that time. She strives to help the people of North Africa but apparently achieves only a surface-level success. The harsh reality of the crime-ridden city cannot be glossed over.
Nason moves on to one of the world’s most glossy and glamor-addicted city: Dubai. The Christmas decorations, like the luxurious lifestyles, are way over the top. Here the perfect Christmas wonderland at the Jebel Ali Hotel is a mere façade, and she and many others are forced to work on Christmas day for no apparent reason. Christmas is a commodity, but since its spirit cannot earn a profit, it is left out. Nason, however, is able to regain her Christmas spirit by joining the Dubai Drama Group’s pantomime about Robin Hood. The spirit of Christmas is alive and onstage.
By this point the audience understands that these stories are not really about Christmas but rather about one’s relationship to it.
Nason’s story moves on to her next Christmas in Texas. She is intrigued by Zach Scott’s production of A Christmas Carol, but she's put off by America’s blatant commercialization of Christmas and, perhaps much worse, the constant playing of Christmas songs everywhere. Yet again she must discover Christmas in a new home, and again theatre is the answer. Stealing Baby Jesus as performed by its delightful author deserves to become a new Austin Christmas tradition.
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
Live performances at Trinity Street Players: streaming performances until December 26, 2021.