The Long Christmas Ride Home Review - Paula Vogel Play is Elegant But Incohesive

 

Strawdog Theatre Company recently opened the second main stage show of its 2015-16 season, The Long Christmas Ride Home by Paula Vogel, the story of a Christmas Day that shapes the lives of three siblings, incorporating Japanese Bunraku puppetry. While there is elegance and insight in many of the show’s individual moments, the play as a whole feels incohesive.

 

Foreground: Ed Dzialo, Rear (L to R) Sarah Gitenstein, Kristen Johnson and Sam Hubbard. The Long Christmas Ride Home at Strawdog Theatre. Photo by KBH Media

 

The first half of the show hones in on the life of an American family, with a Man and Woman assuming the roles of the mother and father and three puppets, operated by one actor each, representing the family’s three children, Rebecca, Claire, and Stephen. At first, the two adult actors speak all the lines, granting the audience moment-by-moment access to the thoughts of each character as they travel to the mother’s parents’ house to celebrate Christmas. Vogel’s language is poetic and elegant, setting the tone for a production that leans more toward the theatrical than the real, and the beauty of her language is one of the greatest joys of watching the performance.

 

Sam Hubbard in Strawdog Theatre’s The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media

 

The minute examination of each character’s thoughts and the skillful way that Vogel builds tension and raises the stakes as the scenes progress helps create an important emotional connection to the characters. A bizarre flashback to a Christmas service the night before interrupts the main narrative and introduces the play’s fascination with Asian elements in a new way as a goofy pastor (played with great comedic timing by John Taflan) explains Eastern worldviews to his listless congregation.

 

Foreground: Loretta Rezos, Rear: (L to R) Sarah Gitenstein, Kristen Johnson, Sam Hubbard and Ed Dzialo. The Long Christmas Ride Home at Strawdog Theatre. Photo by KBH Media

 

In the second half of the show, the actors manipulating the puppets during the first half put the puppets aside and become their characters’ adult selves, delivering long monologues as each finds themselves stranded in the cold on a winter’s day. Actors Sarah Gitenstein (Rebecca) and Kristen Johnson (Claire) deliver their monologues with particular skill, bringing vivacity and humanity to their characters. This is not to say that Sam Hubbard, who plays Stephen, has any less talent; however, by the time his portion of the story arrives, it has become difficult for the audience to keep their attention on yet another lengthy monologue.

 

Sarah Gitenstein in Strawdog Theatre’s The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media

 

The story takes a strange turn towards the end, as well, and it is difficult to connect the dots between the different sections of the play. While the siblings’ adult scenes clearly mirror each other, and threads from earlier scenes carry through to the second half, it hardly seems that the events of the “long Christmas ride home” directly lead to the events in the rest of the children’s lives. Ultimately, I felt as though I had watched two excellent plays mashed together and glued in place with randomly selected bits of Asian theatre.

 

L to R: Kristen Johnson, Loretta Rezos and Ed Dzialo. The Long Christmas Ride Home at Strawdog Theatre. Photo by KBH Media

 

The incorporation of Asian elements has a mixed degree of success. On the one hand, the use of puppets to represent the children during their youth makes the adult characters feel more fully fleshed out and realized, and the use of one actor (rather than three) to manipulate the puppets makes it clear that this was a Western take on an ancient art form, rather than a flat attempt to recreate the form itself. The use of shadow puppetry during Claire’s monologue is an effective choice as well. However, long sequences of movement seeming to draw from Asian traditions slow the story down, and in general it is unclear how Asian culture really connectes to the story at all. The show ostensibly explains its fascination with Asian traditions through the character of the Minister and the adult Stephen’s self-proclaimed obsession with all things Eastern, but as far as connections to the show’s themes, it seems fairly out of place and bordering at times on Orientalism.

 

Kristen Johnson in Strawdog Theatre’s The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media

 

The Long Christmas Ride Home can claim the distinction of the being unlike any other piece of theatre I’ve seen. The characters are strong, Paula Vogel’s language is beautiful, and many of the play’s moments resonated with me deeply. However, the combination of elements the show encompasses is incohesive and at times dizzying as the show shifts between styles without warning, particularly noticeable in such an intimate venue, in which the audience has no distance (figuratively or literally) from the show’s rapidly changing moods. The Long Christmas Ride Home is a collection of great elements that just don’t come together.

 

Tickets

Dates: November 9-December 12, 2015

Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.

Industry performance: Monday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m.

Fully accessible performance in conjunction with the Access Project at Victory Gardens: Thursday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m.

Single Tickets are $28 and on sale now. Subscriptions, group, rush, senior and student discounts are also available. Tickets may be ordered online at the Strawdog website or by calling OvationTix toll-free: 866-811-4111

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