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O.C. THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Wherefore Art Thou Christmas? : SOC Culls Yuletide Sonnets, Scenes That Shakespeare Cast in Small Roles

Unlike Charles Dickens or Dylan Thomas or Truman Capote, who each wrote stories about the meaning of Christmas, Shakespeare made just a few minor references to the Yuletide season in his entire body of work.

There are brief mentions in “Hamlet,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” according to Thomas F. Bradac, producing artistic director of Shakespeare Orange County.

And none of the references--not even the title of the comedy “Twelfth Night,” an apparent allusion to its possible premiere on the Epiphany--indicate that Christmas held any personal significance, religious or otherwise, for the Bard.

Nevertheless, SOC has no trouble calling its annual holiday show: “A Shakespearean Christmas.” (It opens a six-day run on Thursday for its second consecutive year at Chapman University in Orange.)

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“They celebrated Christmas in Elizabethan times, but not with the sort of hoopla we’re used to,” Bradac said in an interview this week. “Shakespeare did make lots of use of the solstice and the idea of rebirth as a theme, however, and we tie that into the holiday festivity for our show.”

The SOC presentation, which also has the subtitle “A Midwinter Night’s Dream,” makes use of songs and scenes from six of the Bard’s plays, three of his sonnets and a variety of letters, poems and stories by authors as different as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ogden Nash, Robert Frost, Charles Dickens and Art Buchwald.

Bradac points out that the festive Christmas observance, as we know it, dates largely from the 19th Century and can be traced to the influence of Germanic customs.

“We even have a piece in the show by Coleridge that describes the German tradition of putting up a tree for Christmas,” he said. “It talks about children giving gifts to their parents. I think that’s where our tradition started: a couple of hundred years after Shakespeare’s time.”

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SOC associate producer Kamella Tate, who also is one of the performers, regards the show as something of “a landscape for memories and experiences” at a time of year that deepens the company’s and the theatergoing public’s “sense of community.”

In addition to Tate, three other founders of the county’s only professional classical troupe will participate: Daniel Bryan Cartmell, Michael Nehring and Carl Reggiardo. Joining them on stage will be John-Frederick Jones, Christopher Duval, Elizabeth Maher and Deborah Wissink.

In addition to their songs and scenes, the performers will select favorite seasonal passages by writers or artists that have affected them. Cartmell, for example, will present a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Tate says she is considering memoirs by Elizabeth Bowen or Georgia O’Keeffe.

Not everything has to be high-minded. Some presentations may simply be amusing doggerel or favorite Christmas recipes. “We think it’s a way to do a holiday piece without doing the old tried-and-true,” Bradac said.

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Just the same, there will be familiar numbers--everything from a swing version of “Let It Snow” and Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” to what Tate calls “our infamous, interactive sing-along.”

“A Shakespearean Christmas” was launched last year as a fund-raiser to help pay the cost of its two-play summer season at Chapman’s Waltmar Theatre. Although that is still a goal, Bradac said, the troupe hopes to “build the show into a winter tradition” in its own right.

Meanwhile, SOC has decided to insert a third production this summer into its previously announced 10-week season of “Twelfth Night” and “King Lear.” The play, yet to be chosen, would be “a small chamber piece” to run on nights when performances of the main productions are not scheduled.

“We’re talking about doing something by Chekov or (Shaw’s) ‘Don Juan in Hell,’ ” Bradac said, “or even creating a new piece about the kings and queens of England similar to what the Royal Shakespeare Company did with ‘The Hollow Crown.’ ”

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SOC has wanted to explore Shakespeare’s history plays, he noted. But doing a full-scale history would require production expenses for costuming and pageantry that go well beyond the troupe’s current capabilities on an annual budget of roughly $140,000.

Accordingly, a chamber work chronicling the kings and queens “would have the most merit for us,” Bradac said.

Unfortunately, scripting an original piece also would be “the hardest to do.” So, in all probability, SOC will go the practical route and pick a small play that is already available.

* “A Shakespearean Christmas” will run for five performances at Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre, 310 E. Palm St., Orange. Shows are Thursday through Dec. 18 at 8 p.m; Dec. 19 at 3 p.m; Dec. 21-22 at 8 p.m. $16-$20. (714) 744-7016.

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Shakespeare on Christmas

Berowne:

At Christmas I no more desire a rose

Than wish a snow in May’s newfangled shows

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But like of each thing that in season grows.

--from “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (Act I, Scene I) Marcellus:

Some say that ever, ‘gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,

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The bird of dawning singeth all night long;

And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,

The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,

No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,

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So hallow’d and so gracious is the time. Horatio:

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

--from “Hamlet” (Act I, Scene I)


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