Performing arts ~ Planet Christmas ~ Contemporary Theater ~ Wakefield

Planet Christmas
The Contemporary Theater
327 Main Street
Wakefield, Rhode Island

Planet Christmas is making its world premiere at the Contemporary Theater. Written by in-house playwright Andy Cooper, the play takes its name from the store in which much of it is set.

Planet Christmas - the store - is a Christmas theme store on the New Jersey boardwalk at Pine Beach. We spend the bulk of our time in the store during the spring and summer of 1995. Not only does Planet Christmas sell Christmas themed items, even the employees, Holly, Ivy, Mary, Carol and Balthasar, are hired based on their holiday related names. Even founder and owner Cole is shoehorned into the Christmas theme in a running joke about 'Old King Cole,' which wasn't Christmas rhyme anyway. Only the new hire, Summer, breaks that trend.

Stephanie Rodger, Maggie Papa, Ari Kassabian

Although the play never leaves Pine Beach, it travels through time over hundreds of years in either direction from the 1995 core.

The story begins with a soaked 16th century French sailor (Brendan Kelley), who staggers across the beach, among the pine trees. He speaks French, gesticulating apparently about his surviving his dousing in the sea. He is met by a local indigenous man (Phil Ryng), who gives him a blanket and food. In exchange, the sailor offers a "boon," a wooden star.

Brendan Kelley, Ashley Macamaux, Riley Cash

After this, we're introduced to the Planet Christmas family. There's snarky Holly (best in show Ari Kassabian), sensible Ivy (Emily Rodriguez), mousy Mary (Kaitlyn Sweeney), taciturn Balthasar (Sami Avigdor), new girl Summer (Magdalen Papa), and go-getter Carol (Stephanie Rodger). They're later joined by owner Cole (Terry Simpson), who also bears a remarkable resemblance (and wardrobe) to Santa Claus.

Stored in the back of the store room is a box of plaques with bleak Christmas poems. They're attributed to Margaret Crackstone. In 1844, young Miss Crackstone (Stephanie Traversa), a Newport socialite, who in her refusal to live according to societal rules, is labeled 'hysterical,' and sent to Pine Beach with her father's attorney Richard Hendrick (Brendan Kelley). There she's supposed  to 'cure' herself by writing Christmas verse under the observation of an unseen quack doctor. Hendrick is in the process of reading A Christmas Carol - nice nod, by the way - but hasn't finished it. Crackstone can only speculate the most dire and bleak of endings.
Brendan Kelley, Ashley Macamaux, Riley Cash, Stephanie Traversa
Back in the 20th century, events unfold that draw the Planet Christmas crew closer together. Cole shares the story of how his mother Judith (Isabella Bennett) spent a Christmas Eve with a local woodcutter (Ryng).

Terry Simpson, Isabella Bennett, Maggie Papa, Phil Ryng
Throughout the late 1990s, Mary slowly comes out of her shell (a nice transformation by Sweeney), until Christmas Eve 1999 when a crisis pulls the co-workers together again in the off-season.
During Intermission, there's live a capella caroling while you refresh your drink or grab a candy bar. You can't hear it from inside the theater, so it's definitely worth leaving your seat.
When we return, we've been catapulted to the future in the 26th century. Pine Woods is a wasteland, barely inhabited. Historian Epiphany Birdsong (Riley Cash) and his cyborg companion JD (Ashley Macamaux) are trying to draw a historical memory of Crackstone's time in Pine Woods, to discover the earliest of her later-famous science fiction works. They watch our French sailor again, and see Crackstone with Hendrick, but they're distracted by a surviving fisherman (Ryng) and are disappointed in what they find.

This is also the hardest part of the play to follow, mostly due to dialog too hurriedly spoken.

And finally, the Planet Christmas gang are reunited in the early 21st century. The store is long-since closed, and they gain some closure as well.

Maggie Papa, Jos Silbert, Kaitlyn Sweeny, Sami Avigdor, (Back - left to right) Ashley Macamaux, Riley Cash

Planet Christmas is not your normal Christmas fare, although it could be argued that settings past, present and future crib a lot from Dickens. But it's warm, it's deep, and it's about Christmas and family. The cast is very good overall, with exceptionally strong performances by Ari Kassabian and Kaitlyn Sweeney. I'd recommend it, and if they show it again next year, I'd go again.

Want more info? Motif magazine has a very well-researched review.

Performances run Thursday - Sunday through December 20.



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