Funniest Christmas Play You Will Ever See Running at Next Act

Joe, Doug Jarecki, proposes to the Virgin Mary, Sara Zientek

A carpenter named Joe walks into the Nazareth tavern, nervous about this date that is a fix-up.

Sitting in a chair, clutching a white afghan over her tummy, sits the very pretty Mary. It’s her first blind date.

He introduces himself as Joe the carpenter. She replies she is called the Virgin Mary.

“Cool nickname,” he says. Joe is lovestruck immediately and proposes to Mary. She says yes, and then Joe finds out she’s eight months pregnant. Joe tries to understand the immaculate conception thing, and once he’s convinced there is no other man, they marry.

The sweet and stirring moment when they agree to go ahead with the wedding could only come from the sweet and stirring mind of Doug Jarecki

Mr. Jarecki debuted his “‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” two years ago to rave reviews and wild audience acclaim. It’s back again, running at Next Act Theatre and opening night the show proved to be at least just as funny and maybe with an added touch of sweetness.

Collaborating with the wonderful direction of James Fletcher, Mr. Jarecki has tightened some of the first version of the play while never losing the humor, some obvious and some subtle, that makes this show the best holiday show in town.

He’s got a sparkling cast of himself, Mitch Weindorf, John Cramer, Lindsey Gagliano and the spectacular and continually amazing Sara Zientek as a multi-layered Mary, and Mr. Fletcher has guided them into a cohesive and well-timed ensemble.

There is, of course, a thread that runs through the whole show – the impending birth of Jesus Christ. Three kings are going to Bethlehem via Nazareth and Persia, an innkeeper and his daughter are working hard to fill the inn, which is built right in front of their ramshackle manger (get it?), and two servants, one of whom has the hots for one of the kings.

The various journeys are full of moments of wild hilarity.

Joe and Mary are getting ready to head to Bethlehem and they’re having a conversation about why Joseph feels so out of it., ignored in all the excitement.,

“It’s the whole immaculate conception thing,” he complains to Mary. “And now it’s the name thing.”

“We can’t name him Henry,” Mary says, rejecting Joseph’s suggestion. “We can’t call him Henry Christ. (She pauses) But we could use it as a middle name.”

Joseph thinks it over.

“Jesus H. Christ,” he shouts. “I love it.”

They exit and we are then greeted to the three kings, Melchior (Mr. Jarecki), Gaspar (Mr. Weindorf) and Balthasar (Mr. Cramer). They enter like unhinged cheerleaders.

“Let me hear you Persia,”Mr.  Jarecki shouts as he runs around the stage. “C’mon Persia. Let’s do the wave.” And the wave gets done.

The three kings discuss the difficulty Gaspar is having getting together with his slave, Helen. In order to help him get in touch with his feelings Melchior suggests a road trip.

“Bethlehem,” he shouts. “Here we come.”

Sara Zientek the overloaded servant follows Doug Jarecki to Bethlehem

Each of the kings is determined to bring a gift. Melchior will bring gold. Balthasar is bringing frankincense. Gasbar announces he’s bringing myrrh, sending the other two kings into stitches.

“Myrrh,” Melchior shouts. “Myrrh? That’s the incense they use at funerals to cover up the stench of dead bodies. It’s corpse deodorizer.”

Eventually, of course, we get a baby and all’s well that ends well.

This play is a classic example of how wonderful humor can be when it’s done well.

This is not salacious or suggestive humor. It’s a gentle humor that pokes gentle fun at a story that is holy for Christians. Some of the jokes are obvious, but that only adds to the enjoyment of the evening.

Mr. Jarecki has put together a great cast and a very clever play that got laughs from beginning to end.Mr.  Fletcher directed with a very steady and seasoned hand, making all the transitions and costume changes as smooth as a Jarecki joke.

I can hardly wait for next Christmas to see this again, and the only suggestion I’d offer is that he take the first scene at the inn and tighten it up a bit to keep the laughs going.

In addition, I can hardly wait for next March when Mr. Jarecki debuts and new play, “One Night in Poland.”

There are are lots of choices for theater this holiday season, but if you are looking for a holy and laugh-filled story with the kind of sweet moments that make the humor even funnier, then this is the one to pick.

“‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” only runs until December 23. Santa says stop wrapping. Go see it.

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Pickering moving and powerful as “Secret Mask” hits home at Next Act

Sometimes – only occasionally – we get a chance to step into an area of rarefied air, a place where perfection lives and the world seems to bask in the glow of a magnificent light.

Exhibit One – James Pickering at “The Secret Mask” at Next Act Theatre.

Part of this is the demands of the role created by playwright Rick Chafe. But a bigger part is the way Pickering roared into the role with the strength, serenity and majesty of a lion the king of a pride.

Artistic Director David Cecsarini has a lengthy history of bringing unseen and powerful plays to Next Act, and Mask is no exception.

Mr. Pickering plays Ernie, a 70-something man who has suffered an aphasia  stroke.

The American Stroke Association describes it this way.

“Aphasia does not affect intelligence. Stroke survivors remain mentally alert, even though their speech may be jumbled, fragmented or impossible to understand. Some survivors continue to have trouble speaking, like getting the words out”,trouble finding words, problems understanding what others say, problems with reading, writing or math or an inability to process long words and infrequently used words.”

Ernie is working with Mae (Tami Workentin), a speech pathologist when his son George (Drew Parker) arrives to visit with the father he hasn’t seen since Ernie walked out 40 years ago.

That the two men are virtual strangers is complicated by the disabling of any kind of meaningful conversation between the two. Mae is an optimist, full of praise over the most minimal of progress for Ernie. George is Angry and hopeless over the seemingly disconnected reality where Ernie is stuck.

The first meeting between the three is a harbinger of what’s to come.

Mae: That’s a good day’s work, Ernie.  I bet you’re tired.

Ernie:  Yep.

Mae:  He needs lots of rest, so I’d suggest just a couple of minutes.

 Your son’s here now, Ernie. Everything’s going to be fine. You and George can go over to the lunchroom and have a short visit—

George:  Can I talk to you a minute?

Mae:   —and then I’ll send someone to get you. (to George) I have to see another client right away, but I can set up some time with you this afternoon—

George:   Just—seriously. Is this it?

Mae: No no, it’s only been three days since the stroke.

George: He can’t put two words together.

Mae: It’s a lot to take in, I know, but he’s going to improve.

George:Just roughly—is he going to be able to answer an intelligent question any time soon?

Mae:  I can’t say how quickly, but I can almost promise you’ll see progress.

Have you spoken with the social worker yet, Mrs. Barrett?

George:  She can’t see me until three, I could really stand to be filled in right now.

Mae: Let’s sit down right after you’re finished with Mrs. Barrett. She’ll give you the whole overview of what’s ahead. The team who will be working with your dad, some of the timelines you might expect, the changes you need to be getting ready for—

George: No.

Mae: I’m with your dad again at ten o’clock tomorrow. Why don’t you come sit in with us and I’ll clear some time after.

George:I had no idea he’d be like this.Mae: I’m sorry to be so rushed. This can be overwhelming. The most important thing is he needs you and you’re here for him now.

George: …. No.

Mae: I’m going to get an orderly to take your father back to his room.

I think you really need to have a chat with Mrs. Barrett. Okay?

George: Just—have her call me.

George has come to Vancouver on business and he is obviously throw for a loss by his father and unwilling or unable to step up to the plate. There is nobody else in Ernie’s life and George is determined to remain reluctant to do much. He harbors a palpable resentment of the man who left him and his mother 40 years ago.

The play is a journey taken by father and son that moves haltingly forward with a series of setbacks as they move. The journey is further complicated b y another father-son relationship, the one between George and the unseen Reese, 15-years-old and a hostile rebel to his father.

George faces unexpected and profound disappointments and crises during the two hours of this play, but finds, much to his surprise, solace in the fractured relationship with his father.

Mr. Pickering delivers a performance that must rank near the top of his storied career. He captures everything there is to capture about Ernie. He’s funny and confused and angry and sad and charming – oh, is he charming.  It’s a performance of such subtlety that I didn’t realize how glorious it was until the curtain call.

Mr. Parker is new to Next Act and shows displays a range of emotions and purpose with skills. It’s not easy to be a character who an audience dislikes at one point and then loves with abandon at another. But Mr. Parker is clearly up to the task.

Ms. Workentin, one of the most reliable actors in Milwaukee, not only plays the speech pathologist but also creates several minor roles as a restaurant server, a nursing home hustler, a fishing buddy of Ernie’s, a bank teller and  a lawyer. She has remarkable versatility and creates different characters with only minor touches that only an experienced and talented actor can deliver.

Despite all the skills from director Edward Morgan and the other designers and actors, this is a play that belongs to Mr. Pickering. He is an actor who has a clarity of understanding that all things must be in service to the story and is generous to all who share a stage and a seat in the audience.

His ability to marvel seems to never wane.

“The Secret Mask” runs through December 10 at Next Act Theatre.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design, Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Slater & Shannon Sloan Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly.