Holiday Theatrical Roundup: From Profane to Poignant

by Jean Schiffman

From solo autobiographical drama to sketch comedy, holiday-themed performances abound on San Francisco stages this month.

The Jewelry Box

If you’ve seen solo writer/performer and radio/TV personality Brian Copeland’s earlier, memoir-based works—“Not a Genuine Black Man”, about growing up in East Oakland with an abusive father, and “The Waiting Period,”about his lifelong struggle with depression—you know that Copeland has the unique ability to present the most heartbreaking personal narratives in ways that are rueful, humorous and deeply affecting. In his Christmas story, “The Jewelry Box,” Copeland returns to his East Oakland childhood in a sensorially detailed memory piece in which he morphs gracefully into various characters.

At age six, little Brian was determined to raise enough money—$11.97, to be exact—to buy his mother a special Christmas present: a jewelry box that he saw in a store. Under the watchful eye of his tough but loving grandmother, he pursued his goal with astonishing, even preternatural, clarity and focus. Over the course of several pre-Christmas weeks, he applied for a bank loan, interviewed for a job as a used-car salesman and did library research for a couple of old guys hanging out on a street corner drinking from paper-bag-wrapped bottles and arguing (over the exact date of the Helsinki Olympics, as it happened). The kid ultimately raised most of the needed cash by collecting and returning used soda bottles. What ultimately happened to him that Christmas—and what in fact taught him the true meaning of the holiday—is indelibly imprinted on his memory and makes for an engrossing tale.

Developed with his longtime director of choice, David Ford (the Bay Area’s esteemed, go-to director for solo work), Copeland workshopped the show last year before opening it this year. A simply told, 70-minute piece, with light and sound design by another longtime Copeland collaborator, David Hines, “The Jewelry Box”is a gem of unsentimental storytelling. On the phone after his first preview, Copeland says he changed names and characteristics of some of the characters—but not of his much-feared father. “I did really go to Crocker Bank to try to get a loan,” he says. “Nobody was mean. Everybody thought it was pretty cute.” He guesses that his crystal-clear memory of such long-ago events is connected to the trauma of the events themselves. “When I start to focus and write, things will pop up that I forgot about,” he says. His sisters helped jog his memory, too. But other events are simply so painful that he has blocked them out—“I have to keep some things in a box,” he says. When he’s performing, he finds himself regressing; the experiences he’s relating, and the age he was when they happened, are real for him, and, as he says, “If it’s real for me, it’s real for the audience.”

Through Dec. 28, The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., 282-3055,

It’s Christmas, Carole!

When the Children’s Creativity Museum suggested to performer/playwright Michael Phillis and the Thrillride Mechanics troupe that they create a one-man “Christmas Carol,” Phillis knew he couldn’t compete with Patrick Stewart’s version. But, wanting to work with the same creative team as he did in the recent, charming “Wunderworld” (including director Andrew Nance and local clown and comic actor extraordinaire Sara Moore), he was inspired to re-imagine the Dickens tale in present-day San Francisco, with a female protagonist—a secretary who’s working under a Scrooge-like boss—and use that premise to explore different types of cultures and holidays.

In “Carole,” the titular character is played by Moore as a sort of mix of Carol Burnett, Imogene Coca and Madeline Kahn, with a pinch of Jerry Lewis, says Phillis. Being Jewish is part of why Carole dislikes Christmas. But she’s also grumpy because her boss’s curmudgeon nature has trickled down to her.

Phillis appears in the play as Bob Cratchit. “Not all the characters celebrate Christmas,” he points out. “Hopefully the show transcends religion and culture—it’s a more inclusive message, about celebrating with your people and with all people.

“In doing my research,” he continues, “I realized the things Dickens was attacking are still with us today: consumerism, and the haves and have-nots. I wanted those things to be in it. So we have the Ghost of Christmas Work Days, a puppet that tells Carole she has to work on Christmas Day.

“And the Ghost of Christmas Bonuses, all covered in wires and gadgets and gizmos and remote controls. And the Ghost of Christmas Breaks, when Carole flashes on her own life, and how she broke from her family—how breaks like that happen intentionally and unintentionally.”

With over-the-top costumes, a soundscape that includes Christmas music and an antic, movement-based sensibility, “Carole” ought to appeal to all ages, just as “Wunderworld” did.

Dec. 12-22, Creativity Theatre, Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 4th St.,

Killing My Lobster Winter Follies

In a refreshing antidote to all things that reek of canned holiday cheer, the Killing My Lobster writers, headed up by Ken Grobe, offer 16 to 20 short (two to three minutes each) sketches sending up a variety of Christmas tropes. Seasoned comedy performers—traditional actors as well as experienced improvisers—appear in a variety of guises. Grobe promises the show will “sock it to Santa” and may also include some profane fun with the birthday boy himself. “The only rule I have is, smart and funny wins,” he declares.

Likely to make the cut out of a grab bag of about 40 submitted sketches:

A game show take-off that analyzes the traditional office Christmas party.

A musical number exploring the down side of every kid’s wish-come-true, that Santa is real.

A winter version of Burning Man called Freezing Man.

A skit about trying to sell Kwanzaa to white people.

Something involving Joseph trying to explain sex to a friend.

And of course parodies of holiday songs like “Jingle Bells” and the annoying Chanukah classic “Oh Dreidl Dreidl Dreidl.”

The rule of comedy for actors, notes Grobe, is to take a funny script and play it as real as possible. It also should be noted this is an adult-themed show, although Grobe asserts, “It’s rare for our humor to scar anyone.”

Dec. 12-15, Z Below, 470 Florida St.,

Mittens and Mistletoe

The circus cabaret “Mittens and Mistletoe,” a Sweet Can production, is decidedly geared toward kids, while enthralling adults as well, promises clown Natasha Kaluza, who organized this year’s fourth annual show. With beloved local clown Joan Mankin as emcee for the first time, “Mittens” presents nine or ten circus performers in a variety of acts familiar to Sweet Can fans. There’s Kerri Kresinski’s breathtaking aerial tissu act; Matt White’s graceful dance with a flying broom (adapted from the age-old flying fork of Chinese circus, say the promotional materials); Sam Luckey on the swinging trapeze; and a live accordionist. Kaluza herself is celebrating 10 years of clowning with her partner, Jamie Coventry—the two were clown school sweethearts—and she’ll also hula-hoop it up. Newcomers Abigail Baird and Andy Cook perform a hand-to-hand balancing act, and Cook also takes on the Cyr wheel—a sort of giant hula hoop made of metal, within which he does handstands and cartwheels.

Dec. 20-24, Dance Mission Theatre, 3316 24th St., 225-7281,