By Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
Each holiday season, ballet companies expectantly produce their obligatory rehashing of “The Nutcracker.” So too do America’s playhouses delve into the shallow pool of holiday theatrical options with perennial appearances of “A Christmas Carol” or “White Christmas.” Little Lake Theatre’s production of “The (Christmas) Lake Effect” successfully colors outside the lines of tried (and tired) holiday options. This original play is written by former Little Lake artistic director, Sunny Disney Fitchett. Little Lake’s current artistic director, Jena Oberg, takes the sleigh’s reins as director. Oberg finds the right balance, keeping a vibrant show from veering into a madcap frenzy.
The play traces the final dress rehearsal for a production of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s no smooth run-through after the cast is inadvertently locked in an unheated barn during a blizzard. The locked door leaves 12 cast members negotiating the stage for most of the production. Managing a dozen actors is a staging challenge, particularly at Little Lake where the audience flanks all four sides of the stage. Oberg artfully circulates the actors to balance sight lines without making their movements arbitrary or distracting.
A misguided costume delivery for “Cats” instead of “A Christmas Carol” creates endless visual and verbal comedy as the actors hiss and cough up faux furballs. The close quarters also exacerbate the full range of large theatrical personalities, particularly leading man, Felix (Art DeConciliis), who will be playing Scrooge. The middle-aged DeConciliis particularly shines in verbal parlance with Martha McElligott, who plays teenaged actress, Riley. Riley is overly enthusiastic, but McElligott keeps her genuine. This is thanks to steadfast direction from Oberg who reinforces Riley’s excited speech by having McElligott bounce on the couch as she talks. Riley is respectful, calling Felix by his last name, but she’s also young and clueless. When Felix is quoting Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, Riley eagerly asks, “Is that from Game of Thrones?” It’s the perfect summation of generational gaps, and the somewhat saturnine Felix handles it with good-natured grace.
Beyond DeConciliis and McElligott, the rest of the cast also shines. Elizabeth (Mary Meyer) is set to play Mrs. Cratchit and poignantly wishes her character “had a fancy dress – or a first name.” It’s a subtle acknowledgement of historically marginalized roles for women. The play gracefully bounces between past and present as not sleigh bells, but cell phones, ring during rehearsal, sparking the show’s director Beatriz (Stacey Rosleck) to order everyone’s phones removed from the premises. Felix gesticulates and dramatically announces in a sonorous tone, “No Venmoing, No LinkedIn-ing. Welcome to back in the day!”
Inexplicably, the Secret Santa gifts were somehow in the barn before the lock-in. Fitchett’s writing could be tightened up a bit here. While there are no shortage of surprises pulled from the red sack, watching a 12-person Secret Santa exchange inevitably gets a tad tedious.
DeConciliis expertly channels miffed diva over the fact it’s the first year Lakeside Theater (a clever renaming of Little Lake) isn’t producing their signature holiday show, “A Halibut Christmas” (a clever renaming of holiday classic “A Tuna Christmas”). Felix has always headlined in “Halibut,” which only has two roles. He laments not being able to don the faux fur coat required for the role, making the faux fur cat costume an ironic tease. In the program, Oberg notes her first holiday memory at Little Lake was as a teen laughing at DeConciliis in “A Tuna Christmas,” which was directed by none other than Sunny Disney Fitchett. It’s one more layer of metatheatre, but somehow, it’s a heartwarmingly sweet circle of life within the context of the holidays.
Fitchett undoubtedly bakes in other Little Lake jokes us outsiders will never know, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the show. Oberg ensures it’s accessible, so it never feels like an insider’s club. We all get to toast a hearty wassail and laugh at the effect – or rather “The (Christmas) Lake Effect.”
Little Lake Theatre’s production of “The (Christmas) Lake Effect” plays through December 14th at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.