Free Associates

at the Bop Shop

Christmas shows tend to be cozy sugar-plum affairs that tug shamelessly on heartstrings already frayed by the pressures of the season. Or you get shows that roast Christmas like a chestnut over a roaring fire of cynicism, which may be easier than scaring up a little goodwill to share with the exhausted audience but is equally tiresome.

The Free Associates have made me very merry, therefore, by doing little more to their long-running, long-form improv show Cast on a Hot Tin Roof than trim it with some tinsel, add a touch of mistletoe, and drop it into the holiday season. Cast on a Hot Tin Roof: A Dysfunctional Dixie Christmas is described by the improv group as the Christmas play that Tennessee Williams “forgot to write.” Following their usual format, the actors fashion a fully improvised one-act in the style of Williams based on the audience’s choice of family relationships and dark secrets. The audience also decides who in the play will have the honor of being the repressed homosexual and which character from an actual Williams play will make an appearance. In deference to the season, viewers also provide a “dysfunctional Christmas wish” for one of the characters and a seasonal occupation for another.

Thus, on the night I saw the show, we had young southern Belle lusting after the family priest, repressed homosexual Father Stanislaus (“It’s not easy being a Catholic in the south,” she mused), who wanted Belle’s brother Duke, whose deepest dysfunctional wish was to marry Belle (“It’s accepted in the hills!” he protested). Tottering in and out was the venerable Mrs. Venable from Suddenly Last Summer, dressed as a Christmas elf.

The cast of five (Liz Cloud, Mark Gagne, Susan Gaspar, Kristian Hammond, and Lynda Shadrake) excel at counterfeiting Williams’s purple prose, delightedly indulging in the soul-twisting agonies of their characters in “The Glass Nativity,” the title of this particular outing.

With only five minutes to organize, the cast does a more than passable job of structuring a one-act play on the fly, and if the actors occasionally wander away from the point, it’s usually an amusing tangent brought on by their love of wordplay. At one point Gagne gave in to Cloud’s baiting and wondered if the sanitarium down the road had a geriatric suite for Mrs. Venable. Cloud shot back, serenely, “All geriatrics are sweet!” Shadrake masterfully pushed the action ahead whenever it threatened to shudder to a halt, meanwhile endowing Belle with a sizzling simper that could easily outdo the queen of the silk slip, Elizabeth Taylor.

In this show Christmas does little more than provide an absurd backdrop for an entertaining and fast-on-its-feet ensemble that has for the last three years succeeded in parodying Tennessee Williams with the knowledge and heart only lovers of Williams can muster. It’s good cheer, even for humbugs who don’t know Stella from Blanche. v