Joyeux Noel, my little holly berries! Now that I've had several weeks of vacation from my Big Empire duties, I find that I have this big hole in my heart that all the rum balls and Santa bears and nondenominational seasons greetings in the world can't fill. So, I thought I'd try my hand at theater review again. After last year's surreal "Holiday Vaudeville," my cherished spouse and I were crossing our fingers for another crazy-eyed amateur troupe performing Jazzercise moves and warbling Christmas pop standards. That, my little pfefferneuses, was holiday community theater at its apogee- as cheesy as a Heritage Swiss log from Hickory Farms, and as nutty, too.

Last Saturday, the Filthy Critic and I drove all the way up to the windswept burg of Longmont (Town Motto: "Where Feathered Hair Still Rocks!") to see the Palace Performing Troupe's version of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." If I hadn't double-checked my ticket reservations, this would've been a review of "Forever Plaid," which was also playing at the same theater. Seeing "Forever Plaid" would have been the equivalent of receiving a big hunk of coal in my stocking, so believe me, I was relieved, dearies. Unfortunately, "The Best Christmas Pageant" is a children's play, which means that no matter how abysmal the production, I would still have to repress some natural sympathy for the kids on stage. It can be heartbreaking to point the finger at some tow-headed little tyke and yell, "Bad Actor!" My dear husband certainly doesn't feel this way, though. Sometimes, he just does it for fun, when there's not even a play on.

Unlike last year, there wasn't a single free cookie or cup of coffee, but maybe that's because Jester's is normally a dinner theater and food is taken much more seriously here. Indeed, the air had that sort of dishwater and old spaghetti smell I associate with school cafeterias and drudgery. However, there was a snack bar, and just about every kid in the audience had a bag of chips. There were hordes of minors whooping it up in the audience, each horde attended by an non-whooping adult family member or two. I took it as a good sign that the kids were already falling out of their seats before the show even began. In retrospect, all of the activity was probably more due to the excitement over the chips.

This was a pretty small production. The guy who gave us our tickets was also the lighting technician. Instead of a poster, a collage of cast photos was pasted on a piece of cardboard which had the title written in Magic Marker. The set design was kept to a minimum, rather like a kiddie "Waiting for Godot." A lone pianist, hidden behind a curtain, played all the music. I have no idea who played what role because they didn't even have programs. It has become all too clear, my angel-faces, what three bucks get you.

"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," based on a book by Barbara Robinson, chronicles the tenuous reformation of pint-sized hooligans through community theater. The notorious Herdman kids blithely commit theft, arson, obscenity and multiple assaults for no other reason than to terrify the entire citizenry of their town. Lured to Sunday School by the promise of treats (which let me reiterate, this theater does NOT provide), the Herdmans manage to take over all the meaty roles in the annual Christmas pageant by hook, crook and pure intimidation. You may be sure, mes cheris, that all the casserole-baking church ladies are in a perfect tizzy about this turn of events, and there's bitching and backbiting aplenty, but the meta-show goes on and turns out to be more emotionally honest than any pageant before it. The moral of the story is that we shouldn't forget the human side of Christmas, the idea that Mary and Joseph were scared and exhausted refugees, who had their baby in a barn with no assistance from anyone. Conversely, the story would have us believe that juvenile delinquents may have more in common with Biblical personages than anyone would like to admit.

So, there is a message, but the most enjoyable part of the story is the pure destructive energy that the Herdman kids employ to make the rest of the town tremble in their moon boots. As a matter of fact, I think the story would have been much improved if, instead of reforming, the Herdmans had corrupted all those prissy Sunday School students and then they all could've forgotten the play and burned down the school instead. Alas, the play did not provide these sorts of thrills. As naughty as the Herdmans were reputed to be, they didn't seem all that bad on stage. The kids don't ever do anything really serious, like sell drugs or maim somebody, so you know that they're redeemable. The only clues to their naughtiness were their fondness for flannel shirts, mussed up hair and scowling. All the bad kids are reviving grunge fashions! I think for that reason alone, Filthy wanted to boo them until he could boo no more. No one else in the theater booed, not even once.

The rest of the cast, especially the older kids, suffered from Community Theater Syndrome. It's not so much a sickness as a faulty acting philosophy; its proponents believe, "All emotions equal whining." Mais oui, I can accept that whining is a natural part of adolescence, but if these kids were really acting, they would repress their natural tendency to whine and experiment with some other kinds of expression. Besides whining, there were also lots of awkward pauses when the budding DeNiros and Streeps forgot their lines. It wasn't too surprising that the pee-wee audience got pretty restless in the first 20 minutes. They had, after all, finished off their chips.

I did like a few things about the play. Primarily, I was glad I didn't have to dress up like I would've had to for "Mame" at the local arts center; I just went in my Christmas muu-muu, and I felt like I fit in just fine. There was also a tiny, goofy looking boy with huge ears. He didn't whine a bit and, therefore, earned my goodwill. I also liked the one scene in which we got to see the Herdmans wreak havoc in Sunday School; everyone on stage seemed to be getting a real kick out of being pushed and slapped around. After all, isn't that what being in a Christmas pageant is about?

"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever"
is all through for the year, but other performances may await you. The Palace Performing Troupe
Jester's Theatre, 224 Main St., Longmont, CO
303 682 9980

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