By Philip Pearce
IT’S THE POPULAR potpourri of holiday selections from The Listening Place Readers Theater with a new look this Christmas season. Compiled and directed by Suzanne Sturn and subtitled “Light in the Season of Light: A Lamp in Darkness,” it features a selection of prose and poetry pieces ranging from the Bible and the Q’ran to Garrison Keillor. All backed by seasonal keyboard and vocal music.
This all-female cast is headed by a trio of top-grade local performers consisting of Sturn herself along with Maryann Rousseau and Susan Keenan. Kit Birskovich (left, with Sturn) provides some beguiling keyboard accompaniment to works like Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” and a portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel for Christian tastes, plus “The Eternal Light of Hanukkah” and “The Buddha’s Last Instruction” for those who warm to a more religiously inclusive Winter Solstice celebration. Another welcome innovation is traditional Advent and Christmas music like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and contemporary holiday numbers like “White Christmas” sung by the ingratiating Lydia Lyons.
Checking the advance publicity I’d hoped the show’s wide-ranging portfolio wouldn’t ignore the humor that’s been such a central part of past Yuletide Jewels. So it was good to hear the happy gasp of recognition from fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder as Maryann Rousseau approached her music stand and launched a warm and funny reading of “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus” from Little House on the Prairie.
Susan Keenan gave a wise and witty lilt to Norma Farber’s “The Queens Came Late,” the only number reprised from last year’s show. It’s an imaginative picture of how “We Three Kings of Orient are,” in fact, married to some resourceful homebodies who bring less exotic and more domestically practical gifts to the manger than gold, frankincense or myrrh. Only a carping biblical scholar like me would spoil the fun by pointing out that St. Matthew says the visitors were soothsayers, not kings—a hymn writer named John Henry Hopkins Jr. took some major liberties with Scripture—and makes it clear the foreigners arrived after the Holy Family had found cozier accommodation than a Bethlehem stable.
Always gifted and versatile, Suzanne Sturn did wonderful things with a handful of contrasting parts in a traditional Russian tale called “Vasilisa and the Light.” In possibly the funniest offering of the afternoon, she went on to read Garrison Keillor’s “The Old Scout: The Season of Letter-Perfect Families,” a trenchant send-up of those annual Christmas letters loaded with incredibly glowing descriptions of the unbelievable glories of everyone in the sender’s family.
It’s a fine afternoon’s entertainment that offers a chance to see three of this area’s top stage talents in an intriguing variety of techniques and moods.
If I had reservations, they involved running time. The first act lasted nearly an hour and a half. Result at intermission was a sense of overload even in the consistently interesting material we’d just seen and heard. Act 2, to be sure, turned out to be hardly 25 minutes long, but some people I knew had already slipped away to make it on time to another holiday engagement.
Yet, I learned from Listening Place producer Linda Hancock that cuts and a possible reordering of items are going to provide next Sunday’s audience with a smoother balance between the parts of this outstanding Monterey Art Museum event. Usually free to museum members and available to others at the cost of a $10 day pass, this year’s performance and a museum visit are free to everyone. Didn’t I tell you Yuletide Jewels 2016 offers exciting new things? It happens once more this coming Sunday at 1:30 p.m.