In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"Merry Chris-Mess" shows at In Tandem through Jan. 6. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

"Merry Chris-Mess" is a well-made, well-acted lump of crude coal

Is your Christmas season filled with too much hope and joy? Are you tired of seeing heartwarming demonstrations of love and kindness at this time of year? Had your fill of cute kids in angel costumes telling you about peace on earth and goodwill towards men? Then maybe you'll enjoy In Tandem's "Merry Chris-Mess," an irreverent and often vulgar swipe at the traditions and stories that many people hold dear.

In the two-hour show, an ensemble of local Cudahy caroler yahoos clad in red choir robes and Santa hats put down their pierogis and paczkis long enough to lead audiences through a variety of skits. These include ten-minute plays, rewrites of holiday carols and classic songs, and a long parody of the Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life." Playwright Anthony Wood puts his own distinct spin on the material, offering "alternative" entertainment during this special season of cheer.

How does he do it? By swinging for the fences and adding the essentials of great comedy that all of these chestnuts had been missing: butts, turds, phalluses, balls, farts, public urination, ridiculing people with neurological disorders and referencing the sexual possibilities of pointy root vegetables and Vaseline.

But wait, there's not just gratuitous sexual innuendo and scatological humor –there's also gratuitous violence! The trifecta of wit! So if you've ever thought Santa Claus would make a great vigilante, killing all the naughty children by tearing out their still-beating hearts and eating them, well, you're in luck because Wood thought of it, too.

Oh, it's a glorious show, and it comes to you through an enormous, old-fashioned TV set (accurate to the last detail thanks to Chris Flieller's impressive design) which is either used as part of the stage for live performances or as the screen for video snippets of "It's a Life" and a couple of black-and-white parodies of commercials from the 1960s.

The evening starts out with a few carols from the "hey dere, see ya at da fish fry" crowd which are mostly entertaining and sung very well by the talented ensemble. After some South Side Muhwahkee guffaws, the cast dives into a few skits culled from previous Cudahy Carolers evenings. The best of this class is a faux film noir detective story featuring all canine characters. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but there are lots of balls in it (see list of comedy gems above) along with an actual tennis ball. Sean Duncan does a particularly nice job with the hard-boiled gumshoe/golden retriever role. Flieller shows off his versatile vocal chops on a rewrite of Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man," which is clever until the skit is overwhelmed with the gore of Santa as a vengeful assassin.

Sketches focusing on Santa's elves filing grievances with their union boss and a pervy Santa who is "Up on the Roof" peeking in the windows of young girls as they undress are not only unfunny, they're unoriginal. (For my money, Barenaked Ladies' "The Elf's Lament" and Fountains of Wayne's "Man in the Santa Suit" did it first – and better.)

As for "It's a Life," the normally inspiring story of the Bailey family in Bedford Falls, "Saturday Night Live" has taken a couple of whacks at this warm and fuzzy film that manage to be funny without painting George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence as jerks. Zach Thomas Woods brings a decent stuttering Jimmy Stewart impression to the man who, in this version, worked hard all his life for no reason whatsoever. (God bless us every one!) The parody does get points for replacing Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver with the Sesame Street version of Bert and Ernie as hand puppets.

Well-acted, well-sung and impressively produced, "Merry Chris-Mess" looks good and is performed by pros, so the only thing to quibble about is the content. And if you hate Christmas, maybe this is the show for you. If you don't, well, maybe you will by show's end. Either way, read the title carefully. You were warned.


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