December is to theater what St. Patrick's Day is to bars and Christmas morning is to churches—amateur hour, when the seldom-seens turn up in hordes to remind themselves what the inside of a theater, bar, or church looks like.
I mean "amateur" in the best sense of the word, of course, as a lover but not a scholar. Which is great. Not everyone can or should be a full-time theater geek, barfly, or believer, but the influx of amateurs gives holiday theater a soothing, easy-listening kind of quality as people fan out across the city to revisit their annual favorites: families indulging their little bunheads at The Nutcracker, the mild class consciousness of A Christmas Carol, the pleasantly surreal psycho-drag of Dina Martina. (Some longtime fans say Dina's 2013 show, a "greatest hits" compilation, is her best one in years.) Each year also brings younger contenders for the title of New Holiday Theater Tradition.
Muscling in on the drag front is Homo for the Holidays, a loosely themed variety show and unruly glitter-ball of camp produced by drag queen BenDeLaCreme, burlesque performer Kitten LaRue, and gender-scrambling dancer and choreographer Lou Henry Hoover. As DeLaCreme sings in this year's opening number, Christmas—with its tinsel, carols, and gay apparel—is just Pride in a different color scheme: "It's the most wonderful time to be queer./Though most holiday specials/Omit homosexuals/The truth just beneath the veneer/Is that no one does holiday cheer like a queer."
The plot hardly matters, but for what it's worth: Kitten LaRue plays a randy Southern angel who wants to earn her wings by turning DeLaCreme into a more skillful hostess. At its heart, Homo for the Holidays is an excuse for an avalanche of puns and a parade of drag and burlesque stars to try out new routines: Cherdonna and Lou as berserk reindeer, Faggedy Randy (of the Can Can Castaways) as a muscular and hyperactive gingerbread man who lusts after a glass of milk, and ilvs strauss reprising the role of Jesus being bummed out that everyone else has forgotten His birthday. Now in its sixth year, Homo has gotten a serious boost from the most recent season of RuPaul's Drag Race, which dubbed Homo hero Jinkx Monsoon a national drag star.
Monsoon and her partner Major Scales nearly steal the first act as faux-Dickensian/"community theater" waifs with fake British accents who briefly break character to give us a vain and preening rundown on their meticulously threadbare style: "It's called street urchin chic—you should check out our Etsy site... If Mary-Kate Olson was in Tale of Two Cities, this is what it would look like. If Oliver Twist had lived to meet Anna Wintour, this is what he'd be wearing... hashtag totally bubonic, hashtag thin-dustrial revolution." Then they dive into a Kiki and Herb–style routine of demented Christmas carols, including a growling, dubstep version of what I think was "O Come All Ye Faithful" and a crotch-slapping, piano-top stripping routine. They electrified the crowd—and it was more than just Jinkx's recent Drag Race hype. Toward the end of their bit, my companion leaned over, nodded toward Jinkx, and whispered: "Who's that actress? You should keep an eye on her. She seems like she could be big."
Holiday of Errors (Or, Much Ado About Stockings) is an even newer star in Seattle's holiday-theater constellation and an addition to the micro-genre of comedies about Shakespeare as a working playwright, stuffed with winking references to his plays. (See Shakespeare in Love, Wittenberg, and so on.) Theater about making theater has a high risk of being intolerably geeky and self-referential. But playwrights Frank Lawler and Daniel Flint skirt the edge of that chasm without falling into it.
The play begins with Shakespeare (Lawler), broke and cold on Christmas Eve, trying out and throwing away new lines. "O for a moose on fire!" he shouts and scribbles at the same time, then frowns and crumples up his paper before trying again. "Beware the thighs of Marge!" (Hee-haw.) His charmingly dumb leading actor, Richard Burbage, realizes he's forgotten to tell Shakespeare that they'd gotten a letter a few months ago, which turns out to have been a commission from Queen Elizabeth to present a new play at her palace on Twelfth Night—that is, in less than two weeks.
Shakespeare despairs, the gay ghost of his rival Christopher Marlowe (Daniel Stoltenberg) shows up, Christmas Carol–like, to goad him into inspiration, and the comedy of errors is on. Directed by Teresa Thuman, Holiday merrily bumps along as Shakespeare and his company of goofballs go to the palace to write and rehearse, tangling themselves in a variety of romantic and political intrigues.
Lawler and Flint cram their script full of familiar Shakespeare tropes—boozy courtiers, scheming power brokers, naive twits, women disguised as men, and witty characters (in this case, Shakespeare and the ghost of Marlowe) who drift just above the action while constantly commenting on it. Elinor Gunn is especially peppy as the redheaded, effusive, and lusty Queen Elizabeth (the so-called "virgin queen"), who cares less about the play than scoring with some of the players. Gunn delivers an unexpectedly scathing monologue toward the end of Holiday about how men can't abide the idea of a powerful woman who also has a powerful libido—and knows how to both enjoy it and leverage it for practical purposes—earning her a burst of applause that nearly tipped over into a standing ovation.
Like Homo for the Holidays, Holiday of Errors chews up and spits out the usual cultural baggage of late December—carols, Dickens, puritanical killjoys—with easygoing intelligence. Neither show is likely to change anyone's life, but they're both good bets for lightening your mood.