Referred to as a play for the “young and the young at heart,” Thinking Cap Theatre’s original production O Christmas Tree has plenty to offer both constituencies this holiday season. The script, written by Thinking Cap producing artistic director Nicole Stodard and managing director Bree-anna Obst, centers on a Miami family made up of eight year old named Frankie, his mother Claudia, and his paternal grandmother Anne.
Frankie explains that this unique family set-up came about when Claudia “got custody” of Grandma Steinberg along with custody of him after divorcing his father, one of the many amusing lines that served to evoke laughs from what seemed to be a predominantly young-at-heart as opposed to truly young crowd.
Interestingly, the plot of this family-friendly play focuses on something that few people probably think about when they think of the beloved holiday tradition referred to in the play’s title: where it is Christmas trees come from. Of course, the answer, at least when it comes to real Christmas trees as opposed to the artificial substitutes that the play’s Farmer Tom amusingly refers to as “competition,” is Christmas tree farms!
So, after Frankie’s mother reads him a bedtime story that takes place on one of these farms and the lights on the Steinberg’s artificial tree blow out prematurely, he takes it upon himself to convince his family that replacing it with a real Christmas tree is worth the inconvenience not only of dealing with shedding leaves but of driving all the way to Gainesville to pick it up.
Naturally, the road trip that results offers the opportunity for some fun family banter. It also gives Thinking Cap’s winning team a chance to showcase their expertise in projection, which Stodard and Obst use to provide the open-road backdrop to this adventure as well as to add texture throughout the play, including during one surreal sequence that takes us directly into Frankie’s candy-coated Christmas dreams. Meanwhile, the company continues to make the most of their unique and expansive space at MadArts Gallery by using the walls of the adjoining room to display photos of the real-life farms and farmers that inspired and informed this whimsical adventure.
On a related note, though the play finds creative ways to include information meant to make the show educational to children, a fair bit of it will probably actually be educational for most audience members who are not already Christmas tree connoisseurs. If the play’s exploration of this particular subject matter happens to piqué your interest, you can also check out a podcast series they produced in conjunction with this production called “From Christmas Tree Farm to Stand,” which features interviews with a few of the Floridian farmers responsible for keeping our state’s supply of Christmas trees evergreen.
Adult actor Phillip Andrew Santiago is tasked with playing the eight year old Frankie, which he does with enough spirited, childlike energy that I scarcely found myself aware of his age during the majority of the show. Carol Sussman, last seen exercising her comedic chops in Savannah Sipping Society, is also a great fit as the spunky grandmother. And Steven A. Chambers is likable and believable as the grandfatherly Farmer Tom who greets the family in Gainesville, if maybe a bit soft-spoken in a role that could have benefitted from a somewhat stronger sense of character.
But the MVP here is probably Angelina Lopez Catledge, who brings a constant vivacity and distinct personality to her role as a Hialeah mother, accent and all. Catledge not only excels during the play’s many comedic moments, but brings genuine emotion to what is perhaps its most substantial, when Claudia describes what it was like to rediscover the joy of Christmas during her childhood in Cuba after a decades-long ban on public celebrations of the holiday was finally lifted.
Musician Paul Curtis provides live accompaniment throughout the play and also makes a brief appearance as the son of farmer Tom, who Claudia immediately attempts to engage in a flirtation—an entertaining bit that is made even funnier to those in the audience who know that Curtis is Catledge’s real-life partner and bandmate.
Lighting by Obst and set and prop design by Alyiece Moretto-Watkins also work to create an engaging visual landscape for the story, while costumes designed by Stodard, including a variety of peppy Christmas outfits for Claudia, boyish PJs for Frankie, and matching plaid get-ups for the two farmers, help convey the essence of each character.
Ultimately, since the fact that this show is geared towards children necessitates that any truly mature subject matter is left unaddressed, I’d probably be quicker to recommend it to families seeking specifically child-friendly entertainment than to pick it out of a more general line-up. On the other hand, an adventure in which the biggest obstacles are as fixable as flat tires and you can always trust in each character’s good intentions could be an easy way for patrons of any age to shrug off more serious concerns to embrace some innocent Christmas spirit.
But before you worry that Christmas will be the only holiday alluded to, the fact that the Steinberg side of Frankie’s family is Jewish does allow a few memorable nods to Chanukah to make their way into the proceedings. And though it is Christmas that is ostensibly the subject of the show’s closing musical number, composed by Catledge and Curtis, the sweet and simple sentiment it expresses is one that could easily transcend any individual tradition.
So, if you’re seeking a wholesome outing for the whole family that’s as culturally enriching as it is funny and endearing, or if you just want to accompany a lovable bunch of quirky characters on a zany holiday adventure, you have three more chances to catch O Christmas Tree this weekend as well as one last chance on Wednesday, Dec 21. By the way, happy holidays!
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!