Bricolage Production Company created a brilliant episode in their Midnight Radio series when they opened the audiovisual masterpiece A Christmas Story on December 7th. Based on the cult classic film, that practically runs 24/7 on TNT/TBS during December, the plot was adapted for stage by Philip Grecian and directed by Jeffrey Carpenter, the Bricolage Artistic Director. The show follows Ralphie Parker as he embarks on a multi-phased plan to ensure his receipt of a legendary official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built right into the stock. Layered with humor and fundamental truths about what it means to be human, the Bricolage storytellers brought A Christmas Story to life right before my very eyes.
Bricolage is nestled downtown in a refurbished building as Pittsburgh-y as they come. Original octagonal tile floors greet you when you enter the cozy lobby and the vaulted ceiling and architectural details were decked out in their holiday best as the space had been transformed into a holiday party with each audience member as a welcome guest. A complimentary “Happy Half-Hour” warmed bellies and spirits as guests interacted with holiday-themed activities (I couldn’t pass up the giant present selfie station!) pulled from threads woven through the show we were all about to enjoy.
The playing space itself is a black box, and upon settling into my comfortable (a wonderful traditional maroon) seat, my eyes feasted upon the organized clutter and chaos that was the stage. Each element had been carefully placed to evoke that 1940’s living room decked out in all its Christmas tree and poinsettia glory while also being a fully-functional Foley studio. Arm chairs and side tables and plush rugs, oh my! Evoking the experience of a live radio show audience, electric signs indicated when the show was “on air” and cued the audience to applause. The idea of a vintage radio show married perfectly with the time period of the show itself, and so the action unfolded seamlessly right from the first chord of the opening jingle.
Each performer had their own station that was constructed to look like classic speaking podiums, with stylized microphones and Foley materials, but the scenes were anything but static. Performers moved from station to station as the story played out, and the unique set-up of the stage meant that the facial expression and vocal acuity of the performers rightly took the spotlight. Toeing that fine line between over performing and passive performing can be difficult, and the actors did the tango on it. Just a fraction more commitment and a purposefully over the top show would have been hokey, just a hair less acting and the show’s jokes would have fallen flat.
Every character that the performers played was so distinct in intonation and expression that it didn’t matter that there weren’t any costume changes – from the parents to teachers to the school kids they were all fully believable, compelling, and down right hilarious. The level of commitment the performers showed to their craft was extraordinary, and it was not unusual for faces to turn red from the intensity of interacting in a particular scene.
Accompanied by a Music Director who performed each sound cue with laser-like precision and an occasionally bored-looking Cello Fury (the cellists were placed right with the rest of the performers on stage, and every apathetic face or expression was highly visible to the audience. As well as every impatient finger tapping, oh so rapping, on the fingerboard), the musical numbers were a creative and clever delight, oftentimes adapting well-known songs with a tongue in the check twist. But beyond being merely clever, all of the vocal pieces were performed effortlessly even in the face of audience laughter not a few feet from the performers.
Experiencing a live show filled with talented Foley artists added another element that made the audience feel like they were right there in the middle of the action. It was absolutely believable that doors slammed, dogs barked, tongues were ripped off of lamp-posts, and a furnace just wouldn’t behave. The live sound effects added to the novelty of the radio show setting, and simultaneously added an authenticity rarely found in canned sound.
While a central theme of the show was Ralphie’s desire for a material object, the audience got swept along with him as he develops new-found bravery when confronting a bully and begins to build a friendship with his mother that goes past the simple parent-child relationship. Surprisingly poignant for a show so wonderfully comedic, the whole world seemed to slow down as Ralphie learned the importance of family above everything else, and the show was brought to a close.
As a whole, A Christmas Story was replete with all of the classic movie imagery, from the beloved Leg Lamp to the Pink Bunny Pajamas, and was a delight that would be a welcome addition to any theater lovers holiday plans. A Christmas Story runs at the Bricolage from December 6th through 23rd. Tickets are available at http://www.bricolagepgh.org/buy-tickets/ or by calling (412) 471-0999 for groups of ten or more.