'Tis the season for regifting, and the practice is rife on area stages. In Aurelia's Oratorio (presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through January 3), new-vaudeville scion Aurûlia Thierrûe recycles mother Victoria Chaplin's surreal and winsome acrobatics, proving herself a practitioner once removed — twice if you count grandsire Charlie Chaplin. In All About Christmas Eve (at Machine through January 3), Ryan Landry channels his inner Bette Davis, turning her into a gaily bedecked second-hand present. And Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical (at the Wang Theatre through December 28) takes a delightful nugget of Seussian whimsy and swaddles it in layers of superfluous wrap. So, which of these used Yule offerings should you deign to accept?
Aurelia's Oratorio is a mere 70 minutes long, and 20 or 30 are delightful. For openers, the Aurelia of the title, daughter of cirque nouveau pioneers Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierrûe, emerges limb by lissome limb from a squat dresser parked on a mostly bare stage framed by voluminous red curtains. But first, smoke drifts out of a top drawer — from the heroine's cigarette, as it happens. Then a hand emerges to encase a foot in a red high-heel before the latter appendage can slam a drawer shut. A head arches from a lower drawer as two feet peek from the uppers, the spikes of their scarlet slippers clicking like Dorothy's. Various appendages, seen slinking out of apertures of the bureau in unlikely juxtaposition, seem to signal spectacular if unseen contortion within — until the whole body emerges, extra leg, extra hand, and all. It's a delicious illusion that's cheekily debunked in the end.
There are other such roughhewn and magical triumphs studded into the Oratorio, a dream scenario performed by Thierrûe and dancer Jaime Martinez to continuous recorded music more redolent of piercing strings and Gypsy jazz than a church. A lifesize puppet theater emerges from the shadows, and in a snowstorm of scrolling lace, Thierrûe is menaced by a hinged, square-headed figure with digits like Edward Scissorhands'. The heroine's leg unravels and she furiously knits it back together. Her head appears as a lone, severed Judy entertaining an unruly audience of antique puppets. There is also a fair amount of filler — interludes in which the players pull endlessly on endless swaths of red cloth or do battle with anthropomorphized clothing.
At its best, Aurelia's Oratorio recalls the shows on which Thierrûe cut her teeth, her parents' Le Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible, each of which played the ART twice between 1987 and 1993. The elder Thierrûe was the droll French clown and Chaplin was the aerialist, wirewalker, and transformer into magical beasts. Their daughter lacks the young Chaplin's prodigious circus skills — and the new vaudeville that preceded Cirque du Soleil is no longer so new. Still, Chaplin has created some indelible images for Aurelia's Oratorio, more than a few — including brief bits where, for example, a kite skittles across the floor to "fly" a human — inspired by mediæval drawings of an upside-down world. They, rather than Aurelia, whose charm exceeds her craft, are the show.