Along with all the carols, the shopping, the decorations and the fat, jolly old guy in the unflattering red suit, you can bet your last dollar you'll be subjected to a big pile of whining this Christmas season. Something about the holidays brings out both the best and the worst in us. Many people choose this time of year to write checks to charities, donate cans to food banks and generally direct a little extra kindness toward their fellow humans. Others get mean drunk and bicker idiotically for hours on end with their families. Some are so estranged from their relatives they skip Christmas altogether.
A play by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paula Vogel that's currently running at the Cell Theatre sticks its hands into this mucky pot of holiday misery. The Long Christmas Ride Home, though, is more than just your standard glimpse at the dark side of Christmas. Inspired by Japanese puppeteering (Bunraku) as well as Japanese theater (Kabuki and Noh), Vogel's play is a peculiar examination of Western Christianity's major holiday viewed through a distinctly Eastern lens.
As the play opens, a family of five attends a Christmas service at a Unitarian Universalist Church. Daddy's an alcoholic, philandering Jew. Mama's a lapsed, bitter Catholic. Both mock the unintentionally hilarious sermon of a young minister as he gives a slide show about his recent trip to Japan to illustrate the universality of religious faith.
Later, the family heads to the grandparent's house, where the children each receive gifts that Granny salvaged from the garbage. A very drunk Daddy flies into a rage after his son, Stephen, breaks a charm bracelet given to Claire, the youngest child, who is clearly Daddy's favorite. When he kicks his son, Grandpa throws the entire family out of the house.
The situation turns even uglier on the ride home. From here, the play jumps forward in time to follow the tortured strands of each child's life.
The style of the play is considerably more interesting than its storyline. As is true of most Fusion Theatre Company productions, the details of this performance are immaculate. Two large screens ornamented with Japanese prints are back-lit during certain sections of the play to allow brief glimpses into moments in the characters' lives. Wooden step-bleachers form the central unifying aspect of the stage, with two moveable wooden boxes allowing for simple, elegant scene shifts.
I especially enjoyed that the children are all embodied by puppets; the three puppeteers take over the stage in the flesh once time shifts forward to focus on the kids' adult lives. The puppeteering here is excellent and often hilarious. Likewise, the elaborate choreography is very impressive.
Vogel's play itself, however, didn't really click with me. I liked the ambiance. I liked the performances. I loved the puppets. Yet I didn't feel like I could really connect with these characters.
The play felt much stronger during its first half. The scene in the church is especially amusing. During the second half, though, Vogel's cleverness seems to get the best of her. The time shifts seem excessively intricate, and the drama feels overwrought.
This Fusion Theatre Company production has many strengths. It's certainly very pretty to look at. Ultimately, though, the infusion of elements from Japanese art forms appeals more to the head than to the heart. For this reason, I think, I just couldn't fully invest myself in Vogel's overly clever script.