Sandra Tsing Loh in Sugar Plum Fairy(Photo © Ken Howard)
Sandra Tsing Loh in Sugar Plum Fairy
(Photo © Ken Howard)
"I think I've always been intrigued by Christmas shows," says Sandra Tsing Loh, writer/performer of Sugar Plum Fairy, currently playing at the San José Repertory Theatre. "Christmas is a time of year that is kind of bittersweet for people; there's a lot of emotion in the air -- happiness, sadness, nostalgia, disappointment. And I thought it would be fun to write a Christmas show that sort of unpacks my feelings about the holiday."

Loh's tale focuses on her experiences as a 12-year old, auditioning for a production of The Nutcracker. "Instead of winning the ingénue role, I was cast as a waltzing clown, and a rat," she remarks. Sugar Plum Fairy started out as a short story, and later Loh performed it on the radio program This American Life. She started doing it as a stage show three years ago. "The play is very different from the story because we've had to physicalize it," she says. "It's me battling against an exploding set. There are flying choo-choos and exploding Christmas books. David Zinn, my set designer, decks the theater in an almost "nightmare on Christmas" look; reindeer are flying and getting tangled in the tinsel, like spider nests of Christmas cheer. Santas are exploding out of boxes tilting at crazy angles. It's just an endless crush of special effects."

This is Loh's fourth autobiographical solo show, having previously performed Aliens in America, Bad Sex with Bud Kemp, and I Worry. "It's kind of high-wire performing, because so much is at stake and it's all on you," she relates. "That can be very electric in a theater when it's working."

That's not to say that her tales -- including the current one -- have met with complete approval from family members who find themselves as characters. "My sister sort of enjoys it, but feels irritated because she can't be onstage to defend her character," says Loh. "She thinks it comes across as kind of prissy, tight, and mechanical, and I do have to characterize her that way for the story. So, I've changed her name in the play, just so she can't actually sue me."

Loh says she was surprised by the age range of audience members who have come to see Sugar Plum Fairy. "I originally wrote it to appeal to older audiences, because subscribers at the big repertory theaters seem to skew older," she states. "But I think younger kids, if they've seen Saturday Night Live or anything like that, really get into it. I've started to see people bring their eight or nine year olds." Loh also thinks it's just the right time to do a show like this. "At the end of this year, which has been so tumultuous for everyone with the election, I feel like audiences are really ready to just laugh and have a good time."

-- D.B.

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Rhys Green, John Padilla, and Timothy Paul Evansin La Pastorela de los Inmigrantes(Photo © Jack Ezroj)
Rhys Green, John Padilla, and Timothy Paul Evans
in La Pastorela de los Inmigrantes
(Photo © Jack Ezroj)
Max Branscomb first encountered the pastorela, a Mexican theatrical form that recounts the shepherd's journey to Bethlehem, at a production of a play by Raúl Moncada by Teatro Máscara Mágica in 1991. Inspired by what he saw, he wrote his first play in the same form and submitted it to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego shortly after. A journalism professor at Southwestern College, Branscomb did not realize that this play submission would start a career for him as a playwright. The company turned his play into a holiday tradition, and enlisted the newfound writer to contribute updated scripts every holiday season. This year's production will be La Pastorela de los Inmigrantes, which tells the story from an immigrant perspective.

Immigration a hot topic in San Diego because it borders Tijuana, and the issue has exploded since the passage of President Clinton's Operation Gatekeeper -- which added miles of new fences and hundreds of agents on to the otherwise porous and man-made border. "We've had 4,000 people die since Operation Gatekeeper," Branscomb points out. "Whether you believe that we should have a more secure border or we should open immigration, I think that we should all agree that we should treat people humanely." Still, he's quick to mention that the play is a family-friendly comedy that hopefully will stir more compassion for "the refugees and migrants in our world."

As would be expected from the Christmas story, the angels come to see the shepherds, and the devils try to prevent their pilgrimage "through temptation or coercion or through fear or deceit." Branscomb often writes his characters as icons from American pop-culture. For example, at one point, the devils disguise themselves as Donald Trump, who leads the shepherds down a path of greed. Mohammad Ali is one of the angels, and SpongeBob Squarepants takes time off his blockbuster movie to play the role of Patrick. Some characters from previous years include Batman and Robin, Darth Vader, Spiderman, and the Terminator.

Branscomb describes this as Americanizing the 500-year-old traditional Mexican form. "Whatever you are, you swim and you live in this uniquely blended culture that we have," he argues. "We all speak Spanglish. We all eat different foods. We all dress differently here. So I think the culture belongs to all of us regardless of your race and your heritage." In addition to the American icons, his stories have incorporated Mexican icons such as Benito Juárez and Hernán Cortés, as well as other international figures like The Beatles and U2. In this year's show, reggae singers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh appear as angels.

The playwright plans to take his pastorela to Tuscon, Bakersfield, and other small cities across the Southwest. Says Branscomb, "It's starting to gain traction in the U.S."

-- A.K.

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Larry Coen and Ryan Landry inWho's Afraid of the Virgin Mary?(Photo © Joel Benjamin)
Larry Coen and Ryan Landry in
Who's Afraid of the Virgin Mary?
(Photo © Joel Benjamin)
Now performing for its second year, Ryan Landry's Who's Afraid of the Virgin Mary? is on the way to becoming a holiday tradition in Boston -- right up there with The Nutcracker. Not everyone's pleased with that development, however. "At first, I thought you were one of those Christians calling me up," quips Landry. I asked him if he'd gotten a lot of angry phone calls. "Oh yeah. Death threats. Everything you can think of. A marriage proposal!" What would be a typical threat? "Oh, I don't know," says Landry. "Making me sit through Billy Crystal's show, probably. God, I hate him!"

Somehow, he's escaped the wrath of Edward Albee, whose classic play it parodies. "I've always wanted to do Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," he says, "but I know that Albee freaks out with anybody doing it in drag." The original play, as most theatergoers know, follows the bickering George and Martha on the night their marriage comes to blows in front of their unsuspecting houseguests, Nick and Honey. In Landry's version, the couple is Mary and Joseph, and, as in the original play, they have a long discussion about their -- ahem -- absent son. As they break through their illusions, they are visited by the jolly old Saint Nick Kringle and "the Mrs."

Landry, who's been involved with theater for over fifteen years, has also written Joan of Arkansas and Pussy on the House -- a remake of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Not surprisingly, he was strongly influenced by Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theater Company.) He describes his brand of adaptation as "finding a treasure box" and his style as "lowbrow comedy for highbrow taste." The quip-a-minute and non-sequitur prone playwright adds, "These young people today, they're more interested in Lindsay Lohan's new bra than they are theater. So you have to figure out a way to get them in, you know?"

Even though the play is provocative, certain critics have interpreted it as nothing more controversial than a shot at the commercialism of the holiday. Reviewer R.J. Grubb of Bay Windows argues, "Landry's lewd and rude Who's Afraid of the Virgin Mary? did something else that was nothing short of a miracle. He actually gave deeper meaning to a diluted holiday. For a guy lacking sacred cows, it was a damn satisfying surprise."

In the end, this irreverent retelling of the Gospels might bring about more holiday cheer than Mel Gibson's bloody The Passion of the Christ: "I'm doing a what-if play," says Landry. "I'm not doing the pope's 'it-is-as-it-was' play."

-- A.K.