It is refreshing, so refreshing to see a Christmas-themed show that does not leave the stage floor sticky with sentimentality. Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s Inebriated Holiday takes five more or less well-known stories, narrated by five different, more or less buzzed speakers, and illustrates them with an ensemble of performers who comically enact the narration in a way strongly influenced by the improv style of the Comedy Pigs, a group long and closely associated with MET.
Here’s how it works. The storytellers introduce themselves on a video and begin their narration, the audio recording of which continues throughout each piece. Then the members of the highly adept acting ensemble (Sonny Etzler, Lauren Johnson, James McGarvey, Courtney M. McLaughlin, Thomas Michael Scholtes, and Mallorie Stern) physicalize the narrator’s every word.
I mean that close to literally: almost all of the narrator’s lines are lip-synced by members of the cast, with the lip-syncing often transferring seamlessly among different people on stage. Then, with the assistance of a cornucopia of props (Lori Boyd) and costume pieces (Rachel Smith), they scarcely let a line go by without embodying it in a move or interaction. Under Laura Stark’s skilled direction, what could be a creaky contraption moves like a well-lubricated (there may be a pun there somewhere) machine.
The title of the first story, “The World War I Christmas Truce,” told by Mike Simmons, does not quite do justice to the full content of the piece, which goes back to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the (almost correctly described) cascade of entangling alliances that led Europe into the meat grinder. The truce itself — much written about by nonfiction authors and even, in a highly fictionalized form, by William Faulkner in A Fable — occurred informally between British and German troops in December 1914, well before the greater horrors of the Somme, Paschendale, and Verdun had stamped out humanity on the Western Front.
The show represents trenches through wooden semi-walls, with one actor each principally representing the Brits and the Boche, and another actor, dressed in referee’s stripes, blowing a whistle to command when the shooting starts and stops. When it stops, the two representative soldiers can get out of their trenches, shake hands, share a smoke, play a bit of soccer, and clear the dead bodies (represented by dummies thrown about) from no man’s land, before returning to shooting.
The second story, “Krampus,” told by Tiffany Ahalt, depicts a Central European mythical figure — Courtney McLaughlin makes a strong impression, wearing goat horns and triumphantly bleating — who bags bad children and carries them off to the underworld. Krampus is joined by Santa (James McGarvey); they agree to form a bad cop/good cop kind of alliance to keep the kids in line.
The third story, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” told by Lisa Burl, relates the very true story of the very commercial lineage of the now-famous ninth member of Santa’s roster of ruminants. Focusing on Montgomery Ward staff copywriter Robert May (Mallorie Stern), who created the story on assignment, his brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who wrote the tune, and singing cowboy (and future owner of the Los Angeles Angels) Gene Autry, the segment is both an entertaining and instructive lesson on how a popular culture creature gets created.
What December would be complete without Charles Dickens? MET is doing its (perhaps inevitable) rendition of A Christmas Carol the weekend of December 15–17, but meanwhile the fourth segment of Inebriated Holiday, narrated by Matt Banister, dips into the biography of its author, including his unhappy experience on this side of the pond. Lauren Johnson, as Dickens, delivers a precise, rather subtle performance, in effective contrast to the overall larger-scale style of the show.
The final story, “Saint Nicholas,” told by Shea-Mikal Green, is at once the most thoroughly inebriated and the least well-historically grounded of the show’s segments. McGarvey returns as Santa, while McLaughlin portrays his earlier incarnation, the saint himself. Thomas Scholtes is Bob (or is it John?), a father who is glad to get some bags of gold from St. Nick, lest his three daughters have to be sex trafficked. Johnson and Stern pop in as a couple of elves not altogether satisfied with their working conditions.
The highly amusing storytelling sometimes almost makes one forget the intricate planning and intensive rehearsal process likely needed to pull it off. But this is a show that appears to have been as much fun for its creators and performers as for the audience.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
Inebriated Holiday plays through December 23, 2023, presented by Maryland Ensemble Theatre performing in the group’s downstairs theater at 31 West Patrick Street in downtown Frederick, MD (across the street from the Weinberg Center). Tickets ($15–$36, with discounts available for senior citizens, students, and military) may be purchased by phone at (301) 694- 4744, online, or in person at the MET box office Tuesday–Friday, 12–6 pm and one hour before performances. A limited number of Pay What You Will tickets are available for each performance starting at $5 each, while inventory lasts.
Directed by Laura Stark
Eric Jones* – Understudy
Lori Laird – Understudy
Director: Laura Stark*
Assistant Director: Thomas Scholtes
Stage Manager: Shayden Jamison*
Asst. Stage Manager: Gabi Mendez+
Videographer: Stephen Craig*
Set Design: David DiFalco*
Lighting Design: Reed Simiele
Costume Design: Rachel Smith*
Props Design: Lori Boyd*
Multimedia Design: Shayden Jamison*
Production Manager: Melynda Burdette Wintrol*
Technical Director: Cody James*
*MET Ensemble Member