New: Old traditions

AIRE spins Christmas with a Celtic charm
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  December 7, 2011

FATHER CHRISTMAS VISITS Kids and adults delight.

The winter holidays' bells, lights, and trees are already upon us, and along with them the first of the holiday-themed shows. Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols of various stripes are rife and often beloved, but alternatives are out there, too. This week we look to A Celtic Christmas, an all-ages, revue-style ensemble show put on by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble at Lucid Stage. Under the direction of Tony Reilly, a nimble ensemble of kids and adults enacts the Dylan Thomas classic A Child's Christmas in Wales and The Legend of the Wren, an original tale that strings together several traditions of the Irish holiday tradition, including St. Stephen's Day rites, step-dancing, juggling, and, of course, a dram o' rum in an old aunt's tea.

On Lucid's stage, simply set with woodcut-style cut-outs of cottages, chimneys, and smoke, the excellent and wonderfully kinetic ensemble slides, spins, and sneaks through its Yuletide pleasures. Breezily paced episodes find the boys writing "Mr. Daniel looks like a spaniel" in said gentleman's snowy front lawn, timeless uncles (Corey Gagnon and Tony Reilly) grunting and smoking post-feast cigars by the fire, and poor Dylan (Ansel Hoecker, the afternoon I attended) rendered nearly immobile by an abundance of woolen gifts. A sing-along warns of a certain lady's notorious Christmas cake, the tipsy aunt (Susan Reilly) warbles ballads, the postman (Matiss Duhon) gets through the snow with giant steps and several swigs off his flask, and giddy little boys howl like wolves. With its high spirits and its sweet mischief, A Celtic Christmas is impeccably charming.

Particularly impressive about this ensemble are the skills, candor, and zeal of its younger performers. On the afternoon I attended, the marvelous Owen Doane, Ansel Hoecker, and Evan Laukli were a dynamo band of three careening through the idyll of Thomas's youth. Their rascally energy is a delight as they stalk cats with snowballs, sneak up on the postman, and scramble away from dogs; they also do a fine job of toning it down into quiet moments, like a meditative silence as they follow each other's footprints in the snow. They even sing a verse of "Silent Night" in Gaelic!

Other young performers in the show include talented members of the Stillson School of Irish Dance, who strikingly dance the story of daughters turned to swans by an evil step-mom. One of their members, Mariah Hajduk, also does a remarkably intricate and rhythmic solo as the title character of The Legend of the Wren. There are young fiddlers, to boot; RoryAlice Hoecker alternates with Jaime Eller in accompanying kids as they go door to door, collecting traditional pennies.

The grown-ups are great, too. Gagnon and the Reillys are joined by AIRE newcomer Cheryl Reynolds, as well as Rebecca Hitchcock on the bodhran, or Irish drum, and all are in high spirits. It's an especially delicious treat to see Duhon's beautifully mimed postman, and his ingenue juggler act is a hoot of audience interaction. He will even juggle your personal belongings — last Sunday, a doll, a cell phone, and a young boy's shoe.

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