Arnold’s Bar and Grill, Cincinnati’s oldest tavern, is the cozy and congenial setting for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s rendition of Every Christmas Story Ever Told. But if you're looking for a traditional holiday entertainment, be forewarned: This performance has more in common with wild and crazy sketch comedy than it does with a performance of a full-length Christmas play.
Three actors perform novel interpretations of familiar Christmas tales. Oh, and there is a drunken Santa Claus (Billy Chace) who wanders about welcoming the crowd, operating the sound system in front of the stage and occasionally commenting on the stage action, usually by topping everybody else.
Diminutive Sara Clark has an outsize presence, established at the beginning with a very precise mime to A Christmas Carol. She also has a richly timbered voice; unfortunately it often falls into a repetitive speech pattern. Nick Rose is at his convivial best, displaying keen-edged timing and stalwart determination to overcome whatever odds he might be facing.
(His character also drinks a bit.)
This kind of freewheeling comedy is Justin McCombs’ métier. He shakes, he shimmies, he gyrates his body as he plays various characters with appropriate facial grimaces to match. He doesn’t have that grandstanding quality you might expect with sketch comedy. However, he shares a very plastic, inventive instrument with both the material and the audience. McCombs plays as a gay character — the flashing green-nosed reindeer Gustav, mocked as “different” by the other reindeer — but he plays it humbly rather than lapsing into a broad stereotype.
The play doesn’t actually include every Christmas story ever told, just the most generic ones (besides Dickens’ story of Scrooge, there are versions of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”). But playwrights Michael Carleton, John Fitzgerald and Jim Alvarez manage to pack a lot of humor into the lines, redoubled by director Jeremy Dubin’s gift for devising hilarious physical comedy and the actors’ ability to carry this off seamlessly.
If you prefer a holiday play with a traditional full-script story, there are plenty of fine ones to be found around Cincinnati this time of year. But if you enjoy antic sketch comedy with lots of physical farce and satirical wit, not to mention more than a dash of timely irreverence, then Every Christmas Story Ever Told is for you.
I sat against the side wall the night I was there with a view of the audience and the stage. The vast majority of patrons were smiling or laughing throughout the performance. That’s probably a more telling verdict than any critic can give.
EVERY CHRISTMAS STORY EVER TOLD, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company at Arnold’s Bar and Grill Downtown), continues on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings through Dec. 30. A special concluding performance is planned for New Year’s Eve at 7 p.m. at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s theater at 719 Race St., Downtown. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.