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Christmas Treats

The holiday brings forth some old chestnuts, a few of them tasty

The Christmas season has barely begun, and already visitors are sitting politely in your living room, waiting for you to entertain them. You blab about the balmy Houston winters. You grunt a little over those turncoat Tennessee Oilers. You nod your head about how you're getting on pretty well at work. And then the holiday house-guest dread starts creeping down your skull. As you glance at your watch, you realize you've still got days before these aliens leave town. What, you want to know, can you do with them?

A Christmas play could be just the thing. At worst, it'll eat up a couple of hours; at best, it might get you into that cozy, familial feeling you're so obviously missing. When you've tromped through the Galleria as far as your feet will carry you, eaten all the movie popcorn you can stomach and taken kitchen-table small talk as far as it will sanely go, gather everyone into the minivan and make your way through the streets to your local live theater. Some of what's out there is bound to put you in the Christmas spirit, if only for one magical night. As a start, here's a guide to a quartet of Christmas offerings -- three of them fine stocking stuffers, and one an unfortunate lump of coal.

If your guests have brought kids with them, or if you're wondering what to do with your own offspring, check out Main Street Theater's Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. It's sweet enough and short enough (about 50 minutes long) for even very young children, though the little dumpling who escorted me to the theater was nine and quite delighted to be there.

In the play, Strega Nona, a good Catholic magician who lives on the outskirts of her Italian village, plans a Christmas feast for the town. When her plans go awry and she must cancel her dinner, she learns the value of receiving as well as giving. And those to whom she's given so much learn what she's known all along: that giving from the heart feels fabulous.

As the story unfolds, there's some singing and some shuffling about to the music that can't quite qualify as dancing. And though the music is canned and the songs are decidedly corny (as is the whole script), it's all done in such good fun that the audience, grownups included, was laughing in spite of itself. At two points during the show, kids are pulled out of the audience and into the action. One young fellow was so beside himself after having been on-stage that when he climbed back into his seat, he exclaimed to his mom, "It was awesome down there!"

The cast is, for the most part, adequate, though there are some standouts. Joel Sandel (Mayor), Pablo Bracho (Puppeteer) and Matthew M. Gibbs (Big Anthony) are especially charming. And Beach Vickers, who plays the baker, has such a wonderfully enthusiastic presence, with his crooked handlebar mustache and big, fat pillow-tummy, that he couldn't help but steal the show. The clever set, complete with wonky chairs and cardboard-cutout animals and townspeople, is also very funny. This production makes an excellent interlude for the youthful set, and offers a nice change of pace from kiddie-cinema sensory overload. (Merry Christmas, Strega Nona plays through December 28 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.)

Sadly, Langston Hughes's Black Nativity, currently at the Ensemble, is one Christmas show you should absolutely avoid. Unless you love someone in the cast unconditionally, you're likely to spend the entire evening cringing at the poor actors who are so valiantly grinding through this flat, terrible production. The play tells the tale of Christ's birth in poetry, dance and song, which means that music plays an enormous role in the show. But for some reason, the Ensemble uses canned accompaniment, a major error in a production that takes itself so seriously. The taped music is as lively and constant as freeway noise, making it hard for the singers, who aren't bad, to keep up. They can't seem to muster the energy required to make the tunes, which also aren't bad, come to life.

The dancing is likewise weak. Here, the problem lies not so much with the performers as with the choreography, which moves from completely uninteresting to absurdly peculiar. When Mary, who's nine months pregnant, starts to leap and dance about the stage as she looks for an inn in which to stay, the audience can't help but snicker. And I couldn't help but pity the performers, many of whom are obviously talented. In this instance, the kindest thing would be to do them the favor of not seeing this off production, so that it might more easily be erased from memory once the run is over. (Black Nativity plays through December 28 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.)

If you're looking for a better show with a Christian theme -- this is Christmas, after all -- the Masquerade Theatre's production of Godspell makes a happy choice. Anyone who's at least 30 probably knows something about this musical, which was so ubiquitous in the 1970s. It's a sort of mad musical dash through the Gospel of Matthew's Christian lessons. The tunes are terrific, even if the show's message is somewhat didactic for a '90s audience, which knows very well that not everyone shares the Christian faith.

But the folks at Masquerade have worked hard to yank this show into the present decade. Current cultural references abound. The production includes everything from Homer Simpson to high school gang-bangers to clogging. And for the most part, it succeeds. Best of all, the singing is terrific. Musical director Phillip Duggins shows the cast off at its best, and what he's managed to do with a piano and a drum set in terms of accompaniment is amazing. The only problem I had was with the democratic way in which each performer was given a solo; some of the performers have such lovely voices (Naya Rodriguez-Castinado, in particular) that I wanted to hear more of them and less of the others. Too, the show, which goes on at least 30 minutes too long, badly needs cutting. All the wailing over Christ's crucifixion toward the end just doesn't work; it feels indulgent. Still, all in all, this production is one more successful feather in the Masquerade Theatre's cap. They've only been at this theater business since the summer, and so far they've managed to hit the mark every time. (Godspell plays through January 4 at the Masquerade Theatre, 720 W. 11th, 861-7045.)

Finally, what would Christmas be without a production of Dickens's A Christmas Carol? Better off, you might be thinking to yourself, but in this case, going the Grinch route would be a mistake. The Alley has managed to resurrect this war horse with a great deal of panache and fun. James Black, who played Scrooge the night I saw the show (he rotates the role with Charles Krohn), managed to turn what can be a crotchety cartoon of a character into a being the audience could actually care for. And Paul Hope, in the dual role of the housekeeper and Jacob Marley (he rotates with John Feltch), was wonderfully silly and, in places, laugh-out-loud funny. The set, which is basically a Victorian-looking wooden walkway that encircles the stage, does a nice job of insinuating the hustle-bustle of city life. The special effects dazzled my nine-year-old companion, who left the theater pronouncing, in her haughtiest theater critic voice, that Christmas Carol was "a lot" better than the Nutcracker, which she had seen earlier that week. In fact, she voted Christmas Carol her favorite of everything she's seen, which perhaps says a lot about why so many theaters keep mounting this show. Merry Christmas, everyone, indeed. (A Christmas Carol plays through December 28 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8421.)

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