I DON'T KNOW HOW fair it was to send one poor soul to five holiday theater experiences, but I'll tell you this: Seattle's Christmas offerings are a remarkably painless lot. Even the productions that appealed to me the least -- that hoary old Christmas Carol, and an audacious misfire of The Snow Queen from theater simple -- have their own rewards. I managed to find something to enjoy in everything I saw, and if that's misguided Christmas cheer, well, then so be it.


The Snow Queen

UW Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3931 Brooklyn Ave E, 784-8647,

through Dec 30, call for dates and times. $10/$7.

FIRST THINGS first: theater simple's production of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen is full of real invention, and boasts an intelligent spareness in execution. It's that rare fringe show that looks simple because it wanted to be, not because a budget required it to be. Director Rachel Katz Carey has led her production team -- particularly costumer Doris Landolt Black and scenic designer Etta Lilienthal -- to an imaginative evocation of a wintry fantasy world in which a young girl encounters all sorts of creatures and quandaries in a dauntless search for her lost childhood friend. The Snow Queen is a vivid quest-as-metaphor; unfortunately, it's more interested in the metaphor.

Carey has frustratingly encouraged a marvelously game, capable cast to handle the material with tight rubber gloves and a surgeon's hermetic precision. The narration has a too-sly flatness, and the random snatches of songs, despite warm, appealing voices, just hang there in an emotionless a cappella. The actors don't get to round out the edges of their creations much to give them the warm pliancy that would suggest a child's imagination; they seem stiffened by the confining aesthetic that has placed them somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and a surreal European art flick. Under the weight of the knowing directorial comment, lines like "I dreamt of my friend -- he looked so cold," ring more with the kind of sentiment shared in front of a frosty window in a Bergman film than with the innocent concerns of a play featuring talking flowers.

There is so much potential in this production, such smart craft, that I wish Carey and company had just busted loose and trusted the tale to tell itself, and -- as with the best children's stories -- let us find our own way to its moral underpinnings. I have to admire the skilled uniformity of vision that The Snow Queen displays, though I'm not sure that admiration should be the primary response to a fairy tale.


A Christmas Carol

A Contemporary Theater, 700 Union St, 292-7676,

through Dec 26, call for dates and times. $12.50-$35.

IS THERE ANYONE who really needs to see or hear A Christmas Carol again? It's a thought that pursued me all the way to ACT and all through the first stirrings of its annual presentation of Dickens' classic. Surely I wasn't alone when, upon seeing that woeful, shackled apparition that is Jacob Marley's ghost, my initial response was, "One down, three to go." This year's production is by no means a rousing one. Most of the would-be Victorian revelry and whimsy lacks any sense of the organic, and almost none of the drama seems crucial. So I viciously hated myself for hours afterwards, dammit, for getting a little misty by the time old Ebeneezer made his giddy jig to the home of that blasted Tiny Tim.

The show is constructed to bring in cash, certainly, as well as folks who might otherwise not experience the joys of theater (based on the contented house the day I saw it, it's doing its job). At least a respectable amount of imagination has gone into Richard E. T. White's production. The aforementioned Marley (M. L. Berry) moves with a constricting chain leash that seems tethered in Hell through the theater floor, and the Ghost of Christmas Past (Kimber Lee) is a fetching wintry chimney sweep. The children are mostly lively (in particular a winning young Maria Wardian), and most importantly, Peter Silbert (who alternates with David Pichette) does a fine turn as Scrooge -- he's truly sour and even tries his best to put an original spin on that humbug stuff. It was Silbert's happy reunion with his nephew (a solid Jos Viramontes) that finally got me for a moment and, yes, I am ashamed. You don't need to see this show, but if you do, it won't hurt too much.


Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant

Stage One Theatre, North Seattle Community College,

College Way N & N 92nd St, 216-0833,

through Dec 23, call for dates and times. $10-$15.

BOOK-IT Repertory Theatre's entertaining annual adaptation of the holiday portion of John Irving's wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany opens with Andy Jensen as narrator Johnny Wheelwright being "doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice," and ends on the same wistful note. Owen (Stephen Hando) is a preternaturally small child with a hauntingly cracked way of speaking, who seems to know just how everything in the world should work itself out. Hando does a perfect job in the difficult role, catching the humor and pathos of the boy who casts himself as the baby Jesus in a comically doomed church production of the Nativity. The story's pageant, however, is not the only thing that sometimes goes awry.

Jane Jones' staging shows all the efficiency and crisp, clean pictures of most Book-It evenings (she co-helmed the peerless Seattle Rep production of Irving's Cider House Rules), then gets all gooey like some epic You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I don't remember the book being this cute; there's an edge missing somewhere here. Too many actors are self-consciously playing kids, or talking into their chests like authoritative grown-ups.

Fortunately, the culminating pageant is full of raucous humor. Kymberli Colbourne (so good in Book-It's recent Jane Eyre) is a charmingly befuddled, lovestruck Virgin Mary, and everything about the terrified ascent of an overweight angel (Julie E. Crow) is funny. What happens in between the show's opening and closing sentiment is ultimately a mixed bag that is nevertheless a pleasant celebration of Irving's unique heart and language.


If Ornaments Had Lips

On the Boards, 100 W Roy St, 217-9888,

Thurs-Sun at 9 pm, through Dec 19. $10/$12.

I FEAR Lauren Weedman may be seriously troubled. If Ornaments Had Lips, her acidic seasonal solo piece, is not terribly deep and is full of the familiar, hyped-up speech pattern that pervades most post-Saturday Night Live characterizations, but is performed with such private, maniacal, comic ferociousness that you sense you're inside Weedman's head. If she's an acquired taste (and she may be), she's one that I definitely have; I laughed at her to the point of sustaining internal damage more than a few times, and I'm still chuckling as I write this.

Weedman frolics with the kind of sick, dumb satisfaction you have when you're amusing yourself alone at home, and pairs that with a keen eye for human dysfunction. Lips tells the story of Debraa (pronounced "De-Braw") Heath, a kindergarten teacher who fishes for compliments from her young charges, making them apply peppermint lotion to her feet and line up to touch her shiny blond hair (she coerces them into confessing that brown hair looks "like poop"). Debraa is a failed performer who sees herself as the diva of her annual Christmas parties, then falls for an uninvited, homeless guest who shows up at her school (in a fiendishly dark moment of humor, Debraa berates the children for staring at him).

I don't want to ruin too much else of all this, except to say that its portrayal of the unraveling of a tightly wound mind also features a hysterical tour through a cherished box of ornaments, and a climactic bit that takes place inside the mechanical head of a department store reindeer. I worry for Weedman, but I'm glad she's decided to share her psychosis.


Black Nativity

Intiman Theater, Seattle Center, 269-1900,

through Dec 26, call for dates and times. $10-$38.

IT'S PROBABLY a bad sign that you stop paying attention to the story of the baby Jesus during Intiman's Black Nativity, a modern take related through gospel music and the words of Langston Hughes. You're not alone if you wish director Jacqueline Moscou's ensemble would get back to the singing and leave all that Bible talk out of it. The production is lacking as a storytelling vehicle, so be aware that by Act II it's almost nothing but music, and that the music -- all of it -- is irresistible.

Black Nativity spends its first hour meshing that solemn Christ child business with exuberant, infectious arrangements of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and other familiar religious songs. A lot of questionable mime acting takes place (Thomas Arthur Grant's Joseph has approximately two expressions, both of them pretty goofy), and Kabby Mitchell's choreography is simple and effective, but better articulated by some more than others. The gap between singing and performing has never been more apparent. The show needs more uniformity in execution if it's going to be pulled off with the eloquence for which it strives.

What lifts the evening to its great heights is, of course, the glorious harmonies, which really kick in during the second act. Hearing the voices of the Total Experience Gospel Choir hit a celebratory "Come and behold him" in what you thought was an overly familiar Christmas carol provides a release you won't find elsewhere this season. When this show sings, it soars; there are moments of ecstatic, tearful joy.

Religious or not, you'll also find it hard not to respond to Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, whose "sermon" hits the right tenor of spiritual, nondenominational longing. On opening night he even ad-libbed an incisive complaint against the WTO. McKinney's fervor and the roof-raising vocals are enough to fulfill Intiman's desire to turn Black Nativity into a seasonal tradition.

Support The Stranger