What’s a Houstonian to do if he or she develops a yen for theater around the holidays but would rather poke their eyes out with candy canes and drown a slow death in eggnog than sit through one of those treacly feel-good seasonal productions?
Historically there’s always been the intentionally dark, always odd and often doleful shows Catastrophic Theatre offers every year, including this one. I for one dig them, but they’re certainly not for everyone.
This year, however, there’s another option on the table, a Goldilocks option if you will. A show that’s neither insufferable cheer nor emotional apocalypse. A show with an edge and heart. A show that tries, not always successfully, to be just right.
All Through the House (an original script by Eric James for Firecracker Productions) is a 40-minute immersive night before Christmas narrative that brings an audience of about 30 folks into an Airbnb bungalow (decked out in lovely Christmas cheer with cinnamon-scented candles wafting and warm glowy lighting) to meet a family settling into to bed on Christmas Eve.
But not just any family. This one has two Dads (Allen Titel and Nolan LeGault) and two overly precocious pre-teen kids (Paige Thomas and Eduardo Ramirez.)
With well thought out ushering, the team at Firecracker divides us into two groups, half of us going to spend time with the Dads and the rest of us with the kids, both pairs ensconced in a bedroom and all four donning the same cozy Christmas pajamas. We switch scenes halfway through, via an unnecessary and mood-breaking intermission of sorts, but it does ensure that the entire show is seen by all who attend.
Standing around the big plush beds, we listen as they all talk about Christmas, life, and reveal the relationship they have with each other and the family as a whole.
As the Dads finish wrapping presents, they bemoan being too busy, fretting over their son’s puberty, remembering their first sexual encounters and even getting PG-rated frisky with each other. The kids, on the other hand, have bigger social fish to fry. Socialism vs capitalism as it pertains to Christmas, a #MeToo moment that may ruin the boy’s chances of being on the good list and the downfalls of too much sugar intertwine with the more age-appropriate discussions of gifts asked for and the realness of Santa.
And that’s when this otherwise modern sensibility, cutely satisfying and mildly racy show lands with a thud. At Santa.
We actually meet St Nick (Jarred Popoff) at the start of the evening when he introduces us to the show and explains how things will run. Resplendent in full festive garb, this Santa is neither cheery nor kind. Instead, James has written him as a 4th wall breaking, campy, expletive spewing, diss throwing, sarcastic and sexual character. Which would be fine, even funny, if the jokes were original or if the performance was hammy enough to make it work.
Instead, as Santa enters the family’s narratives, he sucks much of the fun out of the show, leaving the discomfort someone feels when forced to witness awkward situations. No doubt James thought it would be provocative to have Santa discuss masturbation with the kids or to hit on one of the Dads. There is most certainly an appetite for the ‘Bad Santa’ genre. But it’s been done before and with loads more finesse than this low hanging fruit treatment.
Yet you do have to give the production credit – for both the idea and the execution. We don’t get many immersive shows in Houston, and one timed for the holidays, especially a show with a bit of a bite, is a most welcome addition. As appreciated is the thought put into corralling us around the house and making sure we aren’t in the way of the actors. Too often audience members feel adrift or confused in immersive experiences where they’re asked to follow the action. Here, the team at Firecracker (under the direction of Kelsey McMillan), with their instructional signs and understanding of the show’s choreography, ensures all goes smoothly.
All Through The House may not be the exact Holiday gift we asked for, but it's a time of giving, and this production (and the cookie and tequila punch reception following) certainly delivers a much-needed alternate way to enjoy theater this season.
All Through The House continues through December 14, 2215 Union. For information, visit firecrackerproductions.org. $25.