Two vitally important questions about A Christmas Miracle at the Richland Fashion Mall must be answered immediately.
No, it's not being performed at the mall. You'll need to head to the Vista's Trustus Theatre to catch this first full-length original play from The Mothers, the company’s resident sketch comedy/improv troupe.
And yes, it's pretty funny.
Written by nine members of The Mothers, including Abigail McNeely, who also directs, Christmas Miracle played out like some long-lost John Hughes comedy from the early ’90s on opening night It was alternately goofy, endearing, juvenile and amusing. In case the significance of the title is lost on you, that vast substructure below the Regal Cinema on Forest Drive — you know, the one behind the huge, 1960s-in-Eastern Europe-looking parking garage that's attached to the Barnes & Noble — was once a thriving shopping mall just like Columbiana Centre. The title's retention of the word "Fashion" from the mall's heyday establishes this story as unfolding in an alternate reality, where the anchor tenant, Flarnes & Floble, is closing, leaving the last two remaining shops in hapless peril when the mall's evil, Ivanka-like owner (Allison Allgood) threatens to shut down operations for good.
Santa's Sack (insert as much Beavis-like laughter here as you desire) is run by the ideally named Noell Tannenbaum (Krista Forster), the sad-sack daughter of Jewish parents who inexplicably decided to open a year-round Christmas gift store. Next door is The Glass Menagerie, selling figurines curated by Mandy (Clayton King) and Laurel (Gerald Floyd), who comically banter and bicker as one expects from long-time partners in business and love. Their sole employee is Gloria (Alyssa Velasquez), the quintessential manic pixie dream girl, who shyly flirts with maladroit, geeky Darrell (Jared Rogers-Martin), and becomes a one-woman inspirational force in her efforts to save the mall.
Samuel Traquina is along for the fun as the mall owner's long-suffering lackey. He and Allgood played multiple roles, including elderly mall-walkers, teens whom urban legend impels to search for a long-lost cyber-arcade in the mall's shuttered recesses, and horny bookstore employees whose inherent spitefulness makes them antagonists for Gloria and friends. Narration was provided by Preach Jacobs, who also turned up as good ol' Pat the janitor, and as a delusional TGI Friday's server unaware that his employer has been closed for years.
While set in the present, the script acknowledged the retro feel of the storyline in the production's best sequence, a self-described ’80s montage of comic vignettes where the characters tried bake sales, car washes, selling balloon animals and holiday wreaths, a talent show, a bachelor auction and more. all in hopes of raising sufficient funds to forestall the mall's imminent closure. This provided a chance to showcase the cast in assorted comic scenarios, including Laurel in antebellum drag paraphrasing Scarlett O'Hara, and Gloria discovering her previously repressed sexuality via an enticing bump-and-grind set to Tchaikovsky's “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Velasquez's constant exuberance, and Forster's perpetually cynical half-smirk and weary body language helped to flesh out what were recognizable stock characters, and overall the cast embodied their roles with enthusiasm and sincerity whenever possible.
A pleasant surprise was Allgood's unbridled athleticism, as she flung herself into Traquina's arms repeatedly. The production's pace was rapid, the characterizations were solid, the dialogue was easily heard and understood, and the cast's blocking allowed for action to flow smoothly from one scene to the next. All of those indicate an outstanding job by director McNeely. Lyon Forrest Hill's set was simple, accurately recreating the nondescript retail facades one expects, as well as the ornate light fixtures found in the actual mall.
Most importantly, while the misadventures of the mall's denizens were episodic, The Mothers have created a unified story that holds together. Some of their notions are quite inventive: an omniscient narrator might feel lonely due to being distanced from the play's action, for example. And while Mandy and Laurel are used primarily for wisecracks and punch lines, their backstory — a smooth middle-aged charmer described as looking like Clark Gable when he first met a much younger, sassy boytoy — became fascinating when considered in the context of a mature couple 30-plus years into their relationship.
Still, most of the play's jokes were obvious, sophomoric and self-consciously naughty, aiming for the lowest-hanging comedic fruit. Which doesn't mean they weren't funny, but the humor was mainly on the level of TV shows like Married With Children or 2 Broke Girls. The show’s a blast, but just don't expect Oscar Wilde.
There were far fewer local in-jokes than one might expect, beyond random references to things like Lizard's Thicket. Still, as Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson said to the appreciative opening night audience, this is "farm-to-table comedy," with local performers creating original work about Columbia for Columbia, and in that context, Christmas Miracle is a promising and entertaining holiday treat for one and all.
What: A Christmas Miracle at the Richland Fashion Mall
Where Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
When: Through Dec. 16
Price: $28 Fridays and Saturdays; $25 Thursdays and Sundays ($20 students; group discounts available)
More: 803-254-9732, trustus.org