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Lowbrow Treats: Christmas in the Trailer Park

by Bryan Reed

December 2, 2014

The Charlotte-based novelist and playwright Jeff Jackson has compared many people’s reactions to experiencing art — particularly in its more challenging expressions — as a chore, or worse. “People suddenly feel like they're being asked to eat their vegetables,” he told The Quietus. “And these vegetables also happen to be covered in shit.”

No matter how engaging or transformative — or just fun — a work might be, Jackson suggests, for many people, it might as well be a steaming pile of rutabaga. Covered in shit.

Often granted highbrow stature by default, like jazz, theater seems to have become just another vegetable in the mind of contemporary America. It’s a step below opera, perhaps, but still definitely above anything in the cinemas. The ivory tower of the stage is a looming intimidation.

Darleen Seward (Lauren Neely)Jackson’s experimental plays, which work to blur the boundaries between performance art and staged theater, couldn’t be much more different than Betsy Kelso and David Nehls’ straightforward genre piece The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, now playing at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. But the point applies equally to both: Theatre doesn’t have to be miserable.

Watching ATC’s final preview performance — a sold-out show ahead of an almost sold-out December run — was less like munching brussel sprouts than gorging on a festive funnel cake. And this funnel cake also happens to be covered in Cool Whip and paired with a tallboy.

The yuletide sequel to Kelso and Nehls’ original Great American Trailer Park Musical plays like the Griswolds’ Cousin Eddie steering a John Waters production. Camp, kitsch, and blue humor rule the day. And like Shaun of the Dead or The Cabin in the Woods did for horror movies, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical also lovingly pokes at the tropes and clichés of musical theater as well as Christmas sentimentality. From the Scrooge-cum-Grinch lead, Darleen Seward (Lauren Neely), to a ridiculous deus ex machina, the play consistently toes the line between reverence for its influences and fourth-wall-cracking snark at their expense.

Set in the fictional Armadillo Acres trailer park in Starke, Fla., The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical finds residents Betty (Lisa Smith Bradley), Linoleum (Brianna Susan Smith), Pickles (Cassandra Howley Wood), and Rufus (Christopher Ryan Stamey) preparing for the annual Mobile Homes & Gardens decorating contest and the promise of a $10,000 cash prize. When Darleen “C-word” (as her neighbors call her) is struck with amnesia, the whole trailer park tries to unpack the reasons for her bah-humbuggery and recharge her Christmas spirit for good. 

But not without a challenge. When Darleen’s foil and unlikely romantic interest Rufus goes full saccharine, imploring “Who wouldn’t want to celebrate Christmas?!” Darleen replies, deadpan, “Jews.”

It’s exactly those sorts of irreverent cracks that make the play such a junk-food confection.

And there’s no shortage of them in a play that delights in the absurd and inappropriate. It features electro-shock amnesia, a gregarious “breastauranteur” (Grant Alan Watkins), cleavaged cremains, and postpartum narcolepsy. But the play relishes the gooey sentimentality of Christmastime with equal sincerity. To wit, doo-wop number “Christmas Leather Love” plays like a Grease send-up, while “Christmas Memories” is pure Hallmark Channel sugar.

And, set right in the middle, the show-stopping “...It’s Christmas” splits the difference. With a rock-ish setting that suggests, at turns, Meat Loaf and South Park, the ensemble tune crashes headlong into poignant humor. “No time to pay attention lyin’ politicians/ I’m too busy with my holiday traditions/ It’s fantastic to ignore/ What awaits out your front door/ Fuck it, it’s Christmas!”

It’s a hard act to follow, though. After propelling much of the narrative in the first act, the plot’s resolution feels inevitable well before the intermission. The second act is left feeling like an extended, albeit funny, denouement. Still, numbers like the honky-tonk “Black and Blue on Christmas Eve” — which highlighted Stamey’s rich tenor — keep the play from dragging. And the ending, without upsetting the inevitable, delivers an absurd twist.

Despite any flaws in the writing, the Actor’s Theatre troupe gave a festive and feisty reading of the light-hearted musical. The potentially problematic treatment of poverty-as-punchline is effectively glossed over with well-worn (read: defanged) stereotypes and character acting that ultimately goes beyond exaggerated accents and references to Boone’s Farm and lawn flamingos. The six-person cast walks a thin line, but lands solidly on the side of charming, Bruce Campbell camp. Musicians Brian Quick, Don Jaeger and Jeremy DeCarlos, who performed behind a backyard fence, proved capable stylists, shifting easily through shades of country, gospel and rock. And Carrie Cranford’s simple but effective stage direction gave the set an appropriately Technicolor hue, enhancing the play’s delightful dismissal of subtlety. Naturally, the packed house responded enthusiastically.

Where The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is most successful, though, is in tearing apart the artifice of theater’s superiority to the screen. Especially for a medium so full of farce and absurdity as musical theater, this dose of self-awareness is refreshing. And perhaps even trendy. In the era of The Book of Mormon and Spamalot on Broadway and Evil Dead: The Musical off it, there’s clearly an appetite for plays that aren’t ashamed of idiosyncratic comedy. The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is, then, just another greasy, delicious helping.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.


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Tags: Actors Theatre of Charlotte, Evil Dead: The Musical, Spamalot, Book of Mormon, Bruce Campbell, John Waters, Betsy Kelso, David Nehls, trailer parks, Christmas

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