From the moment one sets eyes upon the lobby of the Fourth Street Theater, you feel as if you have stepped into an atmospheric Christmas of the past. Complete with a costumed Santa, chocolate chip cookies, a Christmas tree, artificial snow, and vintage decorations suitable for both a tree and a lawn, the stunning attention to detail is instantly commendable. The set design—credited to Christopher and Justin Swader—is nothing short of phenomenal and it only gets better as the evening progresses. Upon the start of the show, the audience is led down a narrow and dark corridor into, not a stage, but a fully furnished room that looks like a child's attic (or basement) bedroom circa the late 1950s or early 1960s. The decor of the room is impressively vintage and detailed to the point that it is difficult to resist the urge to wander about investigating all the props as if you were exploring an attic toy shop. Within a few seconds, it is easy to forget that you are in a theater and instead feel as if you are a guest in a private home.
This incredible feat of set-design is the setting of "Holiday House: Christmas Bends", the latest play by a theatrical organization known as Mason Holdings. Written and performed by the excellent Tracy Weller, the play is avant garde and strange; disjointed but oddly coherent; immersive and thereby personal. Essentially, everyone in the audience experiences the same play but the creators hope that each person will derive a different meaning from it.
Despite the free-form nature of the piece, there are a few certain facts. “Holiday House” takes place in a family home, likely in the mid-20th century, during Christmastime (it is strongly hinted that the day is Christmas Eve—or maybe several Christmas Eves…in this play, time is elusive). Tracy Weller portrays several unnamed characters—a little girl, a slightly older brother, a strained mother, a distant father, and a semi-prying grandmother. Tracy expertly manages to convey each of these characters as a unique personality using only her voice and body language—and the range of both these aspects of her talent is truly remarkable.
The play begins with Tracy lying face-down on the floor. Above her head is a hole in the ceiling where a line of colored Christmas lights hang down from as well as sparse “snow” flurries. The effect is immediately attention grabbing, especially since Tracy does not move until all the audience members are seated and still—a process that can take several minutes. The first character we meet is the little girl (it is worth noting that the female child and the mother are the two most dominate figures throughout the performance) who gets up and hands band-aids to various audience members. From there, the play escalates into a high-energy, poem-like piece that uses fragmented tidbits of different conversations as dialogue. It soon becomes clear that both the mother figure and the father figure have some deep psychological issues. The high-strung mother is prone to fits of hysterics and rage where she mercilessly rants at and threatens her children, only to immediately apologize profusely. The father—hinted to be a government worker who travels frequently—spends most of his time in the basement listening to the radio and brooding paranoidly about Russians and the Iron Curtain and the potential for a nuclear war. The children have apparently not been spared their complete sanity; in the funniest segment of the show, it is revealed that several phallic symbols have been drawn in otherwise innocent children’s books only to be discovered by outraged adults.
The audience might not have to move from their seats during this performance but various members can expect to be called upon to become part of the antics; some individuals are even christened with new names such as “Winkle Einkle” which sounds even sillier (and funnier) provided that such names are given during a rant/freak out session pertaining to “penis drawings” in children’s books; a speech that is delivered via deliriously good seesawing tangent between the little girl character and the mother character. As the play progresses, the audience starts to wonder if all of this is happening in the head of a mad woman or—perhaps—a ghost who is haunting the room/house; condemned to continuously relive Christmas pasts…both happy and sad.
While the plot of the show and the meaning behind the dialogue is vague, the setting and the tone is irrefutable. While the content ranges from unnerving to sweet, and everything in between, there are some moments of truly laugh-out-loud humor. In fact, the biggest flaw in the show is that there are too few segments that elicit the level of laughs that the “book desecration speech” manages. Two or three more scenes of the same comic effect would certainly add flavor (and favor) to the show. That said, as it is, the play is an immensely watchable performance mostly due to the infallible Tracy Weller who’s mastering of the numerous characters is nothing short of absolutely astounding. Those who enjoys traditional theater should steer-clear, but anyone who adores experimental, imaginative, and deeply-thought-provoking theater should absolutely buy tickets to experience it. Chances are, you’ll still be thinking about it—heck, mulling over it—and dissecting its meaning long after the lights go dim.