Rough Ride

Studio's mix of people and puppets starts off strong, but gradually devolves into an overly melodramatic mess in 'Long Christmas Ride Home'

by Tom Avila
Published on November 23, 2006, 12:00am | Comments

Studio Theatre's The Long Christmas Ride Home is, most certainly, long. What begins as a visually-arresting narrative becomes disjointed as the wonderful bond created with the audience slowly frays and dissipates. While the vast weight of the responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of playwright Paula Vogel, the play's flaws are accentuated by actors who seem to realize that something is not quite right but are unable to rescue the material from itself.

Billed as ''a puppet play with actors,'' The Long Christmas Ride Home brings together Japanese music and puppetry with very straightforward American storytelling. A blend of memory and the present day, the anchor of Christmas Ride is the proverbial family car trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. The difference is that this journey takes place in a Rambler and the only river the family might be crossing is the Potomac.


Homeward bound: Debelack, Bergen and Beckman Ross
(Photo by Carol Pratt)

Paul L. Nolan and Laura Giannarelli play the parents of three children, two girls and a boy, and narrate the events of the trip. The children are played by elaborate puppets manipulated by several puppeteers as well as by the actor who will eventually play each child as an adult. Set against a spare and lovely backdrop and accompanied by music and sound effects created by a single kimono-clad musician (Sumie Kaneko), this is where Christmas Ride is at its strongest.

In a single, unwinding narrative which Nolan and Giannarelli pass back and forth, we learn about each member of the family, their desires, their discontents. The two actors work very well together, creating a warm and embracing atmosphere. Even when revealing the strong underlying sadness of their marriage there is a humor that feels genuine and real. The audience is lulled into a sense of comfort and confidence in both the play and the actors.

But then the structure of the play shifts. The children grow up, we are many years removed from that original car trip, and the audience is confronted by a series of monologues -- one for each child. Nothing in this portion of the show feels adequately connected to what has been built in Christmas Ride's opening. The writing is an issue here as the children's adult failures are stacked one upon the other until there is nothing on the stage but an incoherent and overly melodramatic heap. The use of the puppets is less elegant and the magic evoked earlier in the play is lost.

The spiral is most certainly not aided by Kevin Bergen's portrayal of the lone son, Stephen. Bergen struggles against a character that is somehow less believable as a human than he was as a puppet. A gay man living in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Stephen never fully emerges from the raft of stereotypes used to ''mark'' him for the audience. Likewise, Bergen himself never seems to find a voice for the character. He seems uncomfortable on the stage, and that discomfort feels less like it belongs to Stephen than to an actor unable to find his footing.

The Long Christmas Ride Home
To Dec. 31
Studio's Metheny Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
$42-$55
www.studiotheatre.org

The issues are less pronounced with Tonya Beckman Ross and Kate Debelack as Stephen's siblings, Rebecca and Claire. Beckman Ross and Debelack dive in and work overtime to deliver solid performances. But there is only so much that can be done and their admirable attempts are mired down by material that is so over-written it becomes unbelievable. The vivid imagination that fueled the play in the beginning is gone.

This point is brought into sharp reality when we again return to the car for Christmas Ride's closing moments. The coherence is back, the use of the puppets feels right and there is a definite sense that a balance has been restored.

Too much has been packed for this particular Long Christmas Ride Home. While some may occupy themselves with the often lovely scenery the trip has to offer, others will wonder how the driver managed to get so very, very lost.