A Christmas Story

cache_899459874The Theatre Factory’s holiday offering of A Christmas Story opened Thursday, December 7, 2017 to a small, but enthusiastic audience. Adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, and directed for the Theatre Factory by Catherine Kolos, the play attempts to capture the magic of the original 1983 movie chronicling 9-year old Ralphie Parker’s quest for the perfect Christmas present: the legendary official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time! Unfortunately, this production falls short of the mark.

Let’s face it, anyone trying to re-create the specific humor and chemistry of the original movie already has a hard row to hoe. Any chance of success requires mad skills from everyone involved. It requires a light touch, that lets the wry comedic voice of the original storyteller, Jean Shepherd, speak for itself, while allowing the individual creativity of its new storytellers to shine through as well. This production didn’t manage to do this.

The rhythm of the performance was always just a little off, comedic timing was not quite there, and the cast never meshed as a unified whole – which is a shame, because the adult cast all seemed like competent performers, and I’d like to see them in other productions. On the positive side of things, particular note should be given to Brittany Bara as Miss Shields and Marianne Bayard as Mother, who created intelligent, subtle, interesting characterizations with strong stage presence. Also of note was Lawrence Karl, who did yeoman’s work playing multiple ensemble roles, including the nefarious Scut Farkas. On the negative end, the relationship between Mother and The Old Man never really clicked. And grown up Ralph, the narrator for the whole piece, was too presentational and declamatory for my taste, descending too much into sentimentalism at the end of the play. I write this somewhat reluctantly, since he did have charisma and carried us through the narrative of the play with unwaning energy.

The Theatre Factory is a semi-professional company working in an underserved area of Pittsburgh, and creating opportunities for children to be introduced to and participate in theater through their KidWorks program – all very laudable goals, deserving of support.

Their budgets would appear to be small, based on the production values of this show, and I never expect small budget shows to have the same material quality as higher budget shows. What I do expect is companies to use their resources effectively and creatively. The Theatre Factory didn’t meet this mandate for me with this production of A Christmas Story. The set was more 1920s depression-era flop house than 1940s nostalgic middle-American family home. The black wall at the back of the stage was downright spooky and depressing. The stationary set ultimately limited staging options and the ability to create multiple locations effectively. The set pieces were mismatched and beaten up. Costume choices ranged from “Little House on the Prairie” skirts to 80s outerwear. Lighting was awkward with uneven focus and execution. The sound cues that existed were actually well done. But, this is a show that benefits from an almost continuous soundtrack, so the existing cues only served to highlight the dearth of sound during the rest of the show.

And details matter – having no food props, especially the turkey, when the anticipation of the turkey was a highlight of the action, was a mistake. Lighting the Christmas tree with modern lights instead of appropriate period lights was a mistake. And, Mother’s unconvincing fake “knitting” was distracting and a mistake.

I am passionate with my criticism, because I saw a potential that I believe can grow into creative success for this company. I want their talented actors to have success. I also happen to ADORE the original A Christmas Story movie, and play it for the entire 24-hour marathon usually offered on Christmas Day. So, I really want any stage adaptation to be flawless.

You can visit The Theatre Factory’s website at www.thetheatrefactory.org or email theatrefactoryboxoffice@gmail.com.