Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it OUGHT to be."*

            My family has had a few Christmas traditions over the years. We used to see The Nutcracker at the Orpheum every year until my folks decided it was too much of a bummer to have prerecorded music instead of live music. (I honestly wasn’t cultured enough to know the difference, and I’m pretty sure my dad fell asleep at every performance anyway so I wasn’t sure why he cared).
            We then hauled our butts all the way to Kansas City one year to listen to a legitimate orchestra play for the KC Ballet. That was fun, but when you live on the prairie, you run the risk of a last minute blizzard keeping you from getting back home after the show. Especially when home is two hours away.
             We may have also gone to the Omaha Community Playhouse to see A Christmas Carol a few times—I know I did, but I’m not positive I was with my family—but that only maintains it’s charm for so long before it gets old. It’s probably one of Dickens’ most preachy and self-righteous stories.
            But about six years ago my mom got the idea that we should check out a new show at the Shelterbelt Theatre—near 33rd and California streets (right by California Taco). It was called Christmas with the Crawfords.

           (A quick aside: my dad always insists on driving us to and from the theatre being as it's in what he calls "the rape capital" of Omaha. I always find this funny because my sisters and I attended Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart for high school--a mere two blocks up the street. It's one thing if it's the "rape capital" when you're going to a play. Totally different if you're just trying to pass biology.)
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce.
            Here’s what it is: on Christmas Eve 1944 Joan Crawford—recently fired from MGM—gave an on-air interview from her Brentwood home to Hedda Hopper. Joan’s career was in the crapper but she didn’t know that she was on the cusp of a comeback like few actors have ever managed (she would soon star in Mildred Pierce at Warner Brothers and usher in what many consider Joan’s “Golden Era”—the late 1940’s).
            Christmas with the Crawfords takes place on the night of Joan’s radio interview. She prepares herself and her adopted children, Christina and Christopher, for the interview, but unfortunately Gary Cooper is having a party next door and movie stars keep arriving at Joan’s house by mistake. They drink her booze, steal her thunder, and insist on performing Christmas carols when they realize they have a live radio audience. But the best part about the play is that every character in it—Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, the Andrews Sisters, Hattie McDaniel, Gloria Swanson—is played by a man. (Except Judy Garland, but that’s okay.)
Ron Osborne as Joan Crawford.

            If you’ve never seen Mommie Dearest, you may be a little lost, since Christmas With the Crawfords borrows liberally from the film. Mommie Dearest is the tell-all book Christina Crawford wrote in the 70’s about the hell it was growing up as the psychotic Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter. It was adapted into a movie starring Faye Dunaway in the 80’s and became a cult classic.
            It’s kind of sad that Mommie Dearest is all that many people know of Joan Crawford as, in many ways, the movie about her life overshadowed her actual life and her kick-ass career. She may have been a whack-job, but that’s part of the reason she was such a damn good actress. And hardly anyone remembers My Mother’s Keeper, for some reason, so it seems unfair that Mommie Dearest has such a following. 
            We didn’t really know what to expect that first year and had never seen anything at the Shelterbelt, but we were so completely blown away that we’ve been going every season for the past six years (excepting the years when the theatre opted not to do it). With each year, our group has grown to include more people--my Aunt Mel and our family friend, Steve always go; and this year my sister's boyfriend gave it a shot, though my Uncle Tom still would not. My dad won't go because drag just isn't his thing, though he'll acknowledge its place in the performance world (who can deny it?). But it's become my favorite holiday tradition, melding the rites and songs of Christmas with a more unconventional spirit and flavor.
            Along with the many awesome movie and musical references in the play, I just genuinely enjoy watching a bunch of men in drag playing famous actresses of the 1940’s. I love the gays and this is as gay as gay gets (add on the fact that it's an Omaha production and your whole world just flew over the rainbow in a totally unprecedented way). Additionally, it’s a SNAP! Production, meaning that some portion of the proceeds from the show go to benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project. It’s a nice way to feel like you’re doing something worthwhile as you sit on your butt drinking wine while men dance and sing in dresses. This show has everything!
Shelterbelt Theatre.
            Okay, so I’ve blabbered on about this long enough. Here’s the important info: it was created by Richard Winchester and written by Wayne Buidens and Mark Sargent. This year’s Shelterbelt production was directed by Michal Simpson (I think he directs every year). It ended its run early (Dec. 18th), so I apologize for bringing it up now, but keep your eyes peeled—it may be back next year! (And if it isn't, I will complain to the management.)

Happy Holidays.

*The quote is a famous line from Mommie Dearest, purportedly uttered by Joan in real life but for our purposes it's Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. The line also appears in Christmas With the Crawfords.

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