By Liz Christensen
Salt Lake City’s Star Ward Christmas, playing at Off Broadway Theatre, lays it on thick with the wordplay, puns, pop culture references and parody. Explaining their choice of mash-ups in this new, original production, Off Broadway Theatre (OBT) sarcastically jests on its website that they are “constantly criticized for not having enough intergalactic Christmas shows with a Mormon-based theme.” This production’s blend of comedy relies heavily on Star Wars parody. Jokes regularly depend on the audience catching the references, be they Star Wars, political, pop culture or religious. Christmas is lightly sprinkled on the production, primarily at the beginning and the end. There is a nefarious plan regarding Sith-mas and the iconic opening scrawl sets up that the bad guys are after Santa, who makes a brief appearance at the end of the play.
All the major characters are drawn from the same Star Wars film, with Reyal (Jessica Stevens) banding together with Bo Dang-Ron (Erik Larsen) and dork side defector Flynn (Whitaker Olsen) to find Santa before Kyle-O Sin (Scott Macdonald) and his scorn troopers (Ashley Morales and Alyson Johnson, who both entertain in a variety of ensemble roles.) MTCPO (Tonya Aikens) is on hand to help with Mormon-Cyborg relations. Rounding out the cast are Hanukah Zolo (Chris Kennedy) and a variety of Star Wars type creatures and droids, most of whom are played by children. Casting children in roles that don’t have to be played by kids, where they are able to perform onstage with adults in a small ensemble, is right in line with OBT’s mission to provide “opportunities for aspiring…actors…to learn and develop their skills—opportunities rarely found elsewhere in Utah theaters.” Normally child actors get crammed onstage in quantities that downsize the quality of their opportunities. Never having seen an OBT production before, I did not expect to see children integrated into the show. I think now it must be a regular thing, part and parcel of OBT’s purpose and clearly something the theatre is skillful at implementing.
The adult actors carry the weight of the show and enjoy an easy ensemble vibe. Kennedy is comfortable onstage, and Larsen is clearly having fun. Larsen is engaging as Emcee and in character, though his tendency to mutter undercuts some of his punchlines and energy. His “torture” scene was fun and had a great punchline. Macdonald never waivers in his commitment to his character, and Olsen appears to be a polished and seasoned performer. Aikens is consistent in her limited character movements without ever seeming bored or mundane. Johnson was great, and I would like to see her in a more difficult role. Stevens is an agile and graceful charmer. Morales, who juggles multiple, disparate roles, clearly did her homework to diligently distinguish and capture each character, though sometimes I worried her detailed work wasn’t reaching the back of the house. Natural improvisers, Macdonald and Kennedy appear a little sloppy on some of the memorized lines. Stevens’ first entrance adds a bit of adventurous spirit and is followed up by a very adroit joke about the popular Christian poem regarding one set of footsteps in the sand. Olsen’s energy and commitment in his Act One fight scene with Macdonald is a highlight of the evening. Just when I thought the running gag would run out, the sequence took a few more inventive turns.
Do not expect a traditional, formal theatre experience. Family-friendly and light-hearted, anyone can come to OBT and have a laugh, though catching all the references will be unlikely for younger generations. The improvisational quality works well when the performers fully commit to their ad-libs, but when muttered under the breath or spoken over each other is less effective. The audience is prepped to participate before the show officially starts, practicing some cued responses as well as celebrating any birthdays and anniversaries. Larsen, who greets the audience, starts the energy of the show off like a gunshot. The audience participation extends beyond the traditional “boos” for the villains and cheers for the heroes. I won’t give any spoilers here, but some audience members in the front few rows have additional opportunities, to the delight of all.
The original script by Eric R. Jensen and Austinn Jensen, created to capitalize on the success of last year’s original Star Ward parody, does not provide the heroic opportunities for character Reyla that one might expect, nor did it tax the abilities Stevens appears to have at her command. Brimming with jokes, the script also includes some fun with tongue twisters, pop music and the longest set up to a punch line that I have ever heard. As the set up progressed, I found myself thoroughly entertained by trying to anticipate the punchline, as I assume Jensen and Jensen intended. They let the audience in on the expectation of the joke, knowing full well that they’ve been clever enough to craft a punch line you won’t guess until it lands. There is a delight in this that is unusual to theatre but fits with OBT. The puns are perhaps the most universally accessible pieces of verbal comedy, and while they don’t all get audible laughs, I found myself smiling as I groaned, an acknowledgment of the wit required to craft that kind of wordplay. The running gags were fun but didn’t always build to end on the strongest joke in the string. Still, the script has a solid comedic rhythm and the cast knows how to capitalize on most of that momentum. Prop designers Eric R. Jensen, Clint Lehmberg, and Rob Reins employed their craft in service of some of my favorite moments of the show. The tie-fighter jokes, parachute entrances, and droid videos are clever pieces of prop comedy that play particularly well.
With an old space, a small production, and an exceptionally affordable ticket price don’t expect spectacle or high-tech bells and whistles; but, that is precisely part of the charm. OBT Director Chase Dickerson knows how to use the set limitations to comedic advantage. Some of my favorite moments of the show occurred when OBT pulled its own kind of special effects. There are very funny jokes with perspective and scale performed by Larsen in Act Two, and the planet destruction is enjoyable because it is low-tech. Spaceship fights in both acts are simple yet effective. Scene changes take long but there is an enjoyable laser lighting effect that continually tosses the audience back into the galaxy. The set design has a cartoonish quality with a few tech touches. The lighting is mostly unobtrusive but gets a little playful for a few musical numbers.
Less aptly managed are the limitations OBT experiences regarding sound. MTCPO and Scorn Troopers are hard to hear with their sound trapped inside their masks. Macdonald’s Kyle-O either has a better mic, a better mask, or a better ability to compensate, because he did not have the same tin sound problem. The natural vocal abilities of the adult cast members may benefit from the polishing of a music director, no one is credited, though Olsen sustains a substantive sound on his own merits. Often the actors pulled back on their singing as if they couldn’t hear the music, but the accompaniment track dominated what the audience could hear. Music and Sound Effects were credited to Eric R. Jensen, Rob Reins and Chase Dickerson with Sound and Light Tech credited to Erin Orr. The absence of an official Sound Designer may have contributed to the balance issues that dogged the evening. The music selections are satisfyingly felicitous. Not only do they have all the flavors necessary for an epic galactic opera in the underscore and scene changes, but the intermission music is so fun, you’ll wish you had used the bathroom and bought your concessions before the show started.
Costumes by Eric R. Jensen, Sandy Hubble Jensen, and Janice Jensen are resourceful and make characters immediately identifiable. The Java Hut costume/puppet was a standout.
Choreography by Jilene Stark is excellent and Macdonald, Stevens, and Larsen are all fluid and energetic dancers. Back up dancers provide some additional energy and hilarity to two expository solos in Act One. I was impressed by Stark’s ability to stage engaging and comedic choreography that looked good on every character and burst with energy while avoiding congestion or traffic issues.
OBT’s theatre is quaint and cozy. My twelve-year-old son repeatedly commented on the comfortable atmosphere, cushy seats and charming ambiance of the theatre. OBT is a unique experience. Dedicated to parody with a strong improvisational quality and pervasive elements of audience participation, this is theatre as a gateway drug for audience members accustomed to laughing at YouTube sketches, stand-up comedians and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” OBT is a peculiar gem and Star Ward Christmas wackily shines.
Off Broadway Theatre presents Star Ward Christmas by Playwrights Eric R. Jensen and Austinn Jensen
Off Broadway Theatre, 272 South Main Street, Downtown Salt Lake City, UT 84101
November 17th – December 23rd, Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Off Broadway Theatre Facebook Page
Star Ward Christmas Facebook Event