Fans of Bryan Fonseca’s unconventional sense of humor, political views and affection for Christmas will be pleased to know his sensibilities are alive and well in “A Very Bryan Christmas.” Essentially, a variety show, it is currently playing at Basile Theatre, the new home of Fonseca Theatre Company, which he founded nearly two years ago. I saw the show that runs through Dec. 22nd on Friday.
In the show’s printed program, Fonseca points out in his director’s note that the “neo-vaudeville” show he established 13 years ago, “is a perfect example of art and activism.” His is a description made clear in the show’s subtitle, “How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas”
Those who have also admired Fonseca’s loyal collaboration with fellow artists will also be glad to know he has reassembled a team of creatives with whom he’s worked on previous Christmas shows, including music director Tim Brickley, choreographer Mariel Greenlee, set designer Daniel Uhde and projection experts Ben Dobler and Ben Rose. As far as playwrights, Fonseca has reconnected with Mark Harvey- Levine, Kenyon Brown, Eric Pfeffinger and John P. Gallo.
Rejoining Fonseca are actors Paul Hansen and Jean Arnold, who appeared in some of his past shows. Others in the versatile cast are Jon Stombaugh, Phebe Taylor and newcomer Dorian Wilson. Individually and collectively, the cast was ideally suited to convey the show’s mix of drama, song, dance, and sketch comedy (think SNL). I was particularly impressed with the performance of Hansen, who demonstrated he is the proverbial “trouper,” showing off his song-and-dance skills in a tap number choreographed by Greenlee, while recovering from a recent serious car accident. Also standing out was Wilson, who was making his FTC debut and showing promise as an appealing performer to be reckoned with.
As far as the sketches, for the most part, they are cleverly written. The ones I enjoyed the most were “Oy Vey Maria” with Phebe Taylor as Mary, mother of Jesus, and Arnold as her mother. Arnold excelled in her character, especially with her accent which was spot on. The premise of the sketch was a visit from Mary’s mother, who shows up with a brisket to the manger to see her grandson. I found it hilarious, with its emphasis on the overbearing mother guilt-tripping her daughter. However, the character came very close to reinforcing the stereotype of the “Jewish mother.” But then again, since Harvey-Levin is himself Jewish, I can only assume that he meant it as a valentine.
Another sketch which spoke to Fonseca’s politics was a commentary on the right wing’s current fixation on “fake news,” which it claims is perpetrated by traditional media. In this sketch called “In the Same Country,” written by Pfeffinger, Hansen and Wilson play shepherds tending to their flocks in a field. Upon hearing the omnipotent voice of God announcing the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Wilson’s character is eager to see for himself who the child is and Hansen’s skeptical character denounces the news as a hoax. It was a humorous yet cutting representation of the political polarization taking place in our country.
Though falling short, I nevertheless appreciated “Washington in Winter” by Cassandra Rose. The story involves a father, accompanied by his adult male and female children, who as a dedicated re-enactor, attempts to recreate Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Day in 1776 to battle the Hessians. We later learn there are underlying issues this family is dealing with and discover they thngs are not what they appear.
Stombaugh, who turned in a potent performance as a victim of John P. Gallo’s darkly demented “Santa Claus is Coming,” also shined as the show’s singular musician. Accompanying many of the songs on acoustic guitar, I was especially touched by his playing while Taylor sang “Arbolito” by Tish Hinojosa, a sweet, understated song, featuring a Latina at various ages, singing sweetly to her Christmas tree.
Making the most of a deep stage with limited width, the creative team delivered some very effective production elements, including projections on an upstage screen of the titles of the sketches and songs, as well as information about upcoming FTC shows. A very smart marketing move, indeed.
The most satisfying thing about seeing “A Very Bryan Christmas” is not just that FTC’s esteemed and beloved founder now has another place to call home, but that he can continue placing his singular stamp on Indy’s local theatre scene and nurture a brand that reveals the human condition and spotlights humanity, especially during this season, with its emphasis on kindness and generosity.
For tickets and information about “A Very Bryan Christmas,” go to www.fonsecatheatre.org.