A Karen Carpenter Christmas

Richard Hugo House

Through Dec 22.Christmas in America invariably signifies two things: family and a blitzkrieg of pop-cultural events, including the peculiar genre of "Christmas specials."

In this epoch of the perfectible human, therapists, gurus, and Oprah encourage (nay, order) us to identify and hammer on individual and familial dysfunctions. Alongside the family, Christmas specials have become an object of critique, giving birth to the peculiar meta-genre of ironic Christmas send-ups, often featuring dysfunctional family dilemmas. I am ambivalent about this kind of performance. While I cringe at the mawkish, I also have a limited tolerance for smug mockery.

Among the wealth of self-conscious seasonal humor available in Seattle theaters, A Karen Carpenter Christmas pulls a neat trick--it manages to laugh at the saccharine and lace in a healthy dose of syrupy sincerity. Aping vacant, bubbly '70s vibes, Karen, Richard, and their pop-icon pals (Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, et al.) simultaneously poke fun at and pay homage to their legendary characters.

Part joke, part honest revue, Karen (played with do-or-die earnestness by Katie Guthorn) and friends strike an appropriately complex Christmas chord for those (like me) who have mixed feelings about "Silent Night" and "On Top of the World"; sometimes the sappiness induces laughter, sometimes it inspires warm fuzzies and the urge to sing along. With Karen Carpenter, we can do both. BRENDAN KILEY


Freehold East Hall Theater

Through Dec 20.Let's toss some ideas out--images--and you just relax and react. Ready? Okay: Obsession, passion, fear, regret, rape, raving anorexic girls in cardigan sweaters. Good! Ready for more? Incest, decay, Aleister Crowley, lawn chairs, death, vomit, Shakespeare. Now, did you smile? Laugh? Was your heart inspired to transcend the human condition? Heavens no. Which is exactly why VIA's production of Crave needs a fistful of happy pills and a good soapy colonic--stat.

Wait! I'm not claiming the production is bad! It's a graceful, poetically structured, arty, indulgent deconstruction of... what? Relationships? Sexual insecurity? Loss? Barf? Yes. Told through the disjointed, isolated emotional meanderings of two guys and two gals who are maybe related somehow.

The staging evokes distance and isolation. The chilly lighting, simple but dramatic set, and abstract sound work are as vital to the show as the acting--and the acting is remarkable. Characters move in a smooth, choreographed counterpoint, and the dialogue--internal, external, taken out of context--is abrupt, alarming, and darkly sexy. It's well-done, pointy-headed stuff. And since it runs an economic 60 minutes, time runs out before Crave's emotional intensity gets too indulgent and turns one's appreciation and interest into yawns and rolling eyeballs. But just. ADRIAN RYAN

Holiday XXX

Live Girls! Theater

Through Dec 21.Holiday XXX consists of three holiday plays about the same family: Lula (Kate Jaeger), the charity-obsessed mother; Beula (Brooke Rogers), a chemically sensitive Marxist; Petula (Tammy Taecker), a drunken slut; and Lucky (Tim Barr), a sleazy Russian orphan.

In Sivie Suckerman's Moola Family Christmas, Petula takes everyone hostage to get the family fortune for herself, instead getting an important lesson: Never trust your siblings. The script was limp, but the actors chewed scenery like it was Long Day's Journey into Night.

Rhonda Soikowski's grim Christmas After Dad bludgeoned the audience with humorless monologues about childhood sexual and emotional abuse. A lighter touch was sorely needed--making your audience cringe is not the same thing as making them think. Still, it was bravely acted and nicely staged.

Mele Kalikimaka Comrade, by J. Chisum, was the best of the three plays because it fully embraced the ridiculous characters, opening with Beula reading to green cardboard lepers and ending with Petula rubbing her plastic boobs on her adopted brother to the tune of "A Mina Bird in a Papaya Tree."

Most of Holiday XXX is spunky and fun, and the parts that aren't fail bravely. For that, Live Girls! have earned your attendance. MATT FONTAINE

Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant

Book-It Repertory Theatre

Through Dec 22.The Christmas season has always been a good time for diminutive people. Children, of course, benefit the most from the holidays--they're showered with toys for someone else's birthday, for cryin' out loud. Fictional short characters pop up all over the place--Santa's elves make the toys for all the little children, Dickens' classic munchkin Tiny Tim wishes the blessings of God on everyone. Then there's Owen Meany.

Book-It's transformation of John Irving's book A Prayer for Owen Meany is more than another sweet play tinged with nostalgia for a time (the '50s) when the annual Christmas pageant was a big thing. It's a hilarious holiday fight between the minister's wife and a perpetually picked-on runt of a kid (Owen) over his determination to play the baby Jesus. This fight soon expands to details about shepherds, cows, and turtledoves--and ultimately about the spirit of Christmas itself. Owen, with his wrecked voice and determined Machiavellian cunning, easily takes control from the 40-year-old former stewardess and gains the respect of his teasing friends.

The slight-of-build Stephen Hando returns to the role of Owen Meany with his giant talent--and thank goodness. If ever there was an actor perfect for the role, with the ability to energize the rest of the terrific large cast, it's Hando. Go see this show. GREGORY ZURA

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