Noël Depression

Remnant, Mustard Seed Theatre's inaugural production, hits the mark.

All Christmas stories have a villain who is to be redeemed by the spirit of the season; it's a requirement of the Lollipop Guild. Very rarely do you find a Christmas story where the extremely pro-Christmas hero is the character most in need of redemption. Rarer still is the Christmas play where a hulking nomad called Loner, a twenty-inch hooked blade jutting wickedly from his coat sleeve, arrives on Christmas Eve to help bring about the hero's redemption or to murder him. You know, either or.

But Ron Reed's Remnant is clearly of another world from the moment you step through the theater door. For Mustard Seed Theatre's inaugural production, set designer Dunsi Dai and sound designer Kareem Deanes have crafted a full-sensory simulacrum of a post-apocalyptic world, with the detritus of the twentieth century strewn about the stage, seats, theater walls and suspended from the ceiling; time-warped Christmas music warbles from somewhere, adding another layer to the chaos.

This is the home of Barlow Sho'r (Jerry Vogel), a tinker who studies and fixes the crap of another age, attempting to revive an America he never knew. It's Christmas Eve, and Barlow has drawn together his family: his wife, Delmar Nu1 (Kelley Ryan), sister Annagail Booker (Michelle Hand) and friend Kristn Taler (Peggy Billo). The group will perform the Christmas rituals, which, in Barlow's mind, will begin the resurrection of society. And as we see when Loner (Robert A. Mitchell) arrives, Barlow will eagerly kill to ensure Christmas serves its holy purpose.

Michelle Hand, Jerry Vogel, Kelley Ryan and Peggy Billo in an otherworldly Remnant.
John Lamb
Michelle Hand, Jerry Vogel, Kelley Ryan and Peggy Billo in an otherworldly Remnant.

Details

RemnantThrough December 2 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Center Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students and seniors). Call 314-719-8060 or visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

Director Deanna Jent has assembled a fantastic cast to go with this gorgeous set. Reed's script is written with a broken, awkward syntax to reflect the nature of his world, but the cast delivers the lines with a fluidity and passion that never obscures meaning. Vogel imbues Barlow with a tempestuous power, part nervous energy but mostly zealous belief. His initial showdown with Mitchell is jaw-achingly tense; Mitchell stands fairly rippling with sullen violence, and Vogel faces him with jutting chin and legs locked straight. Moments of silence crackle by, the two locked in a struggle fought internally. As the storyteller Kristn, Billo paints a tale of death and misery when she recounts the history of this world; it's a mastery of understatement, her voice becoming quieter but more forceful as the litany goes on. Michelle Hand breathes a luminous mystery into the ghost-seeing Annagail; she moves with a spidery delicacy, a woman passing between two worlds. Ryan brings an appropriate frontier-wife mentality to Delmar, indebted to her husband but also quietly resentful of his domineering ways.

As with all Christmas stories, the issue of "what is Christmas?" drives the play. Barlow's belief in his own vision reveals a venal fear; secrecy and exclusion are the keys to his power. Only he can bring about the change, only he can understand the mysteries. But rather than argue the point, the foolishness of this creed is revealed in a scene between Annagail and Loner: With palpable fear of what her brother will do, and unsure of the rightness of her own actions, Annagail gifts Loner with a Bible. At the moment both hands touch the book, Annagail's face is radiant, lit from within — and Mitchell's face reveals a joy that is terrifying to behold. Whether Christmas is your holiday or just a seasonal nuisance, you can't help but be moved by the performance. Chalk it up to the spirit of the age. 

 
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