I’m still looking at Halloween pictures on Facebook, Thanksgiving hasn’t hit, yet Christmas is already everywhere. If “Jingle Bells”-themed Old Navy commercials aren’t enough to put you in the holiday spirit, consider seeing Woolly Mammoth Theater’s production “Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis” directed by John Vreeke. This show will certainly put you in the mood for the oncoming season of snow and heartwarming.
The play is definitely a comedy, but it also makes time for sentimental and joyous moments that are customary in a traditional Christmas piece. Similar to Scrooge in Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” all the characters have a moment of clarity when they realize, with the love of others, they can lead more fulfilled lives.
The program tells us that the play takes place on January 6, but it appears to be Christmas-time because the family has refused to take down their tree and decorations. The play occurs more or less in real-time as the audience observes the dramatic episodes during the mother’s birthday party. She begrudgingly tolerates the celebration after she has decided that, at age forty, she is too old to have fun. The guests’ personalities collide on stage, which creates a lot of entertaining drama.
Watching the completely eccentric cast is where the comic elements of the play lie. The ensemble includes the matron who is a dominatrix, her daughter who is feeble-minded, the drycleaner man who cross-dresses, a devout Catholic with OCD, and a Vietnamese gay guy who is a struggling Elvis impersonator. Of course, there is one “normal” character, but she is the estranged we-thought-she-was-dead daughter who has commitment issues. Having so many characters compete for who has the most outrageous complex does weigh down the play. The middle of the play tends to drag because each character must experience an epiphany before the finale, so there is a period of tedious lull.
Despite any preachy tones, the actors remain fun to watch because everyone has perfected his or her role. As the actors move through their lines, they successfully portray believable, yet vulnerable, characters. Everyone is on a journey for the enlightened moment, and since the audience moves on that journey with them, we too achieve a profound sense of compassion.
“Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis” is a play that was originally written for a theater in Bolton, England, and this production marks its premiere in the United States. Much of the humor is what one expects from a contemporary British comedy, because there is not a lot of action, but the audience enjoys watching the characters fumble around the stage mocking each other. Some of the jokes, however, do not translate because the references are lost on an American audience. Until one character began to twirl around on stage, I didn’t know that “ice dancing” is the British equivalent to “figure skating.” Also, I didn’t realize the play was set in England until I consulted the program: based on the actors’ poor and varied accents, the play could have taken place in Ireland, Scotland, England, or America. The character portrayals were tremendous, but their accents were laughable.
Ignoring the accents, “Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis” is wonderful and memorable because of its wit and dialogue, which will make you want to cheer. The beverage all the characters pour down their throats is aptly called the Catastrophe. We watch the actors consume enough alcohol to understand their crazed reception of the ensuing fiasco of the numerous relationship and identity problems.
Ultimately, the endearing moments win over, and the characters’ constant anticipation of snow throughout the play complements the warmth they eventually find in each other’s company. I wouldn’t want to give too much away, but the play concludes in true Christmas fashion. You will certainly be enchanted when, both metaphorically and literally, the play finishes with a grand, delightful snowfall.
Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis will be at Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D St., until December 10. Student tickets are $10 and can be ordered from the theater’s website, www.woollymammoth.net.