Yellow Tree Theatre play written quickly out of desperation is returning for its fourth year, and it's one of their most popular shows of the season and has even inspired a sequel. It's not really a surprise - the show is quirky and funny and a little outrageous, but at its heart it's about friends and family working together to create something they believe in and that enriches their community (not unlike Yellow Tree Theatre itself). What better way to celebrate the holiday season? Yellow Tree co-founder Jessica Lind Peterson wrote the play for their first season five years ago and directs for the first time this year. There are more than a few auto-biographical elements in the play, along with a bunch of ridiculous (but true) Minnesota stereotypes. Even though this is my fourth time visiting Christmas Lake (my second time seeing the original, and I also saw the sequel twice), it never fails to delight and entertain.
Quick plot summary (it's delightfully preposterous, so hang in there): Colin's father has died and left him a theater in the small Minnesota town of Christmas Lake (think snowcats and lutefisk and church basements). He has returned to his hometown with his wife Tess after leaving New York City and his successful career as a soap opera actor.* At the last minute, the rights to their annual Christmas show, It's a Wonderful Life, are pulled, forcing them to come up with a new production in a short amount of time (this really happened to Yellow Tree, which was the genesis of this show). The only actors they can get are the moon boot-wearing lizard-loving massage therapist Martha and the Little House on the Prairie-obsessed piano tuner Neil. They decide to stage a Christmas episode of Colin's soap As Time Ticks By (fun fact: Yellow Tree co-founder Jason Peterson had a small role in my favorite soap-that-is-no-longer, As the World Turns) to appeal to their greatest benefactor Mrs. Burlington. She's a big fan of the soap and Colin, and agrees to play a role in the show. Opening night arrives and everything falls apart, but in a so-bad-it's-good Producers sort of way. The show is a hit, the theater is saved, and Colin and Tess decide to stay in Christmas Lake and build the theater and their lives in this quirky little town they've come to love.
Some of my favorite things about Christmas Lake:
- Martha and Neil are the most adorable and funny nerds you've seen in a long time. Martha (played by the delightful Debra Berger, who BTW starred in one of my favorite Fringe shows this summer) wears moon boots, has a pet lizard, loves The Sound of Music, and makes a mean tater tot hot dish. Neil (once again played by Ryan Nelson, who never fails to crack me up) begins every conversation with "that reminds me of a very special episode of Little House on the Prairie."
- But to balance out that craziness, you need someone down-to-earth and relatable, and we have that in Tess (Brittany Parker) and Colin (Josef Buchel, reprising his role from last year's sequel). Both actors are charming and natural, with a believable chemistry. And they get to play a little crazy in the soap opera play.
- Janet Hanson plays two very different characters - the relatively normal Minnesota mom Gloria and the over-the-top eccentric rich lady of Christmas Lake.
- Being a lifelong soap fan, I love the very recognizable soap opera references, from sperm stealing and evil twins to a powerful businessman named Victor (Icon, not Newman).
- Neil's puppet, which I believe is new to this year's production, is as weird and wonderful as the original. He even has his own bio in the playbill.
- Tess (Brittany)'s sweet and sad rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" does sound, as Gloria points out, a little like that folky singer with the crooked teeth.
- The eclectic holiday songs played during scene changes are so appropriate and unique that I want them all on a soundtrack!
- The set (designed by Katie Phillips) is a rustic and homey barn/theater and makes great use of Yellow Tree's small intimate space.
One thing I don't like about Christmas Lake:
- The hairy mole. It completely grosses me out in a way that's not even funny. Seriously, ew.
*I know it was said in jest, but soap opera actors can act, especially NYC soap opera actors - see Stephen Schnetzer in the recent play Tribes at the Guthrie as one example.