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Entertainment & Arts

The 99-Seat Beat: Santana Claus, a struggling radio station’s ‘Wonderful Life,’ a ‘Sisters’ story

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Troubadour Theater Company’s “The Year Without a Santana Claus.” Rick Batalla, riffing on guitar, plays the title character.
(Ed Krieger)

Santa Claus, George Bailey and the original winter solstice party boy, Dionysus, have a busy weekend ahead as they entertain L.A. audiences with the seasonal shows “The Year Without a Santana Claus” by Troubadour Theater Company, “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play” by Theatre Unleashed and “Aphrodite’s Holiday Show” by the Actors’ Gang. And then there’s “Sisters Three” by the Inkwell Theater, which acknowledges Christmas in other ways.

Troubadour’s ‘The Year Without a Santana Claus’

The essentials: Cross the 1974 Arthur Rankin Jr.-Jules Bass stop-motion animation TV special “The Year Without a Santa Claus” with the guitar-driven Latin American jazz and rock of Carlos Santana, and what do you have? “The Year Without a Santana Claus,” of course. Which must mean that it’s time for the Troubadour Theater Company’s holiday show.

Why this? The Troubies are renowned for their pairings of classics — archetypes of stage, literature, TV or movies — with paradigm rock. This is the group’s 17th holiday show, many inspired by the TV Christmas specials we loved as kids. The Rankin-Bass ones, says Artistic Director Matt Walker, “were so goofy and silly — and the humor was sometimes corny — I think that fits in with the sensibility and the artistic temperament we have” — improv comedy and clowning layered atop serious acting, singing and dancing chops. In the TV show, Santa develops a cold just before Christmas and considers sitting out the holiday because no one believes in him anymore. The Troubies give the story a Latin spin, with Santana Claus and company dipping into such songs as “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” while delivering humor, seasonal sentiment and the message that, as Walker puts it: “Everybody has value.”

Details: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Opens this weekend. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 30. $45-$75. (818) 508-4200, elportaltheatre.com

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‘Aphrodite’s Holiday Show’ by the Actors’ Gang

What: Aphrodite, married though she is, can’t resist Dionysus. Their out-of-wedlock child, Poinsettia, adores Christmas, which frustrates Dionysus because Christians long ago co-opted his birthday, Dec. 25, for their own celebration. For this loving yet highly dysfunctional trio, life plays out like a variety show.

Why this? If the Actors’ Gang — given to genre-bending, socially conscious theater — is going to present a holiday program, you know it isn’t going to be run-of-the-mill. The title of last year’s “Winter Solstice Pagan Holiday Show” has been slimmed to “Aphrodite’s Holiday Show,” but the concept is the same: a tour of spiritual traditions filtered through the romantic frisson of the goddess of love and the god of wine (and drama). “They’re hot and cold with each other,” says co-writer, co-director and costar Lee Margaret Hanson — one minute in love, the next in mid-blowout. “They’re big personalities paired against each other … hilarious, loving, kooky and at times very dramatic.” Woven through it all are dance pieces, as well as variety acts such as magic or juggling. How does that work? Well, for instance: After a big fight between the gods, an aerialist goes aloft to cleanse the air.

Details: Actors’ Gang Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday. $25-$35. (310) 838-4264, theactorsgang.com

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Adam J. Jefferis is Dionysus and Lee Margaret Hanson the title character in the Actors' Gang's "Aphrodite's Holiday Show."
(Ashley Randall)

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‘It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play’ by Theatre Unleashed

The essentials: A struggling radio station in 1947 L.A. could use a Christmas miracle, sort of like the one in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Hoping to at least go out with a bang, the station’s owner arranges a live performance of Frank Capra’s screenplay for the 1946 movie, calling in some Hollywood friends who got their start with the station.

Why this? C’mon, is it really Christmas without “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Here’s an alternative way to experience it, which has become a tradition unto itself. This is the seventh year that Theatre Unleashed is presenting the piece by company co-founder Jim Martyka. About two-thirds of the original screenplay is performed in the style of an old-time radio broadcast, framed by Martyka’s tale about good-hearted people trying to save a once-mighty radio station as television catches hold. Drama trails some of the stars who show up; others don’t show up at all, causing a scramble; and the well-meaning but klutzy foley artist makes rather more noise than intended. “It’s a well-choreographed train wreck,” Martyka says. But the story’s ideals are the same. “I love the message of it,” Martyka says, “the whole thought that if you live your life being the best you can — and be there for the people you love — you will have lived a full life.” Note: This is not the same radio-style version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Details: The Belfry Stage at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday. $20. (818) 849-4039, theatreunleashed.org

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Liesl Jackson and Dallis Seeker in "It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play" by Theatre Unleashed.
(Theresa McGlynn)

‘Sisters Three’ by Inkwell Theater

The essentials: After a suicide, four siblings are three. They’ve always been deeply connected, having grown up somewhat isolated and interacting within a self-created alternate world. In tragedy’s aftermath, the oldest of the three, a famous food blogger, withdraws to a no-technology commune. The other two resolve to draw her back, with the youngest creating an elaborate social media strategy to document it. The story, set in a U.S. university town, is inspired by the sibling dynamic among the Brontë sisters and their brother.

Why this? This is the third new play L.A. will see this year by local playwright Jami Brandli, following “Through the Eye of a Needle” and “Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead!).” The latter, a riff on four heroines from ancient Greek tragedies, was a Times Critics Choice. The new “Sisters Three” is by no means biographical, but the Brontës’ symbiotic ties intrigued Brandli, who set off in new directions to tell a story about “the lengths to which family will go to bat for each other.” The world of publishing looms large, but it’s on the internet, giving rise to another theme: “the struggle to find genuine meaning in our current society that places a lot of value on a curated social media life versus a person’s real life,” she says. And, because Brandli loves Christmas, it’s set on Christmas Eve. Above all, it continues her mission to, as she puts it, “bring female narratives to the stage.” The sisters here are “extremely complicated, and they all have their own journey,” she says. “They are not a supporting character in somebody else’s story” — a quality, she believes, that helps explain her career’s momentum this year. Inkwell Theater, the presenter here, develops and produces new plays. It workshopped “Sisters Three” two years ago.

Details: Inkwell at VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Opens this weekend. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, some 8 p.m. Thursdays and Mondays; ends Jan. 20. $15-$35. inkwelltheater.com

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Kara Hume, left, and Dana DeRuyck in "Sisters Three."
(Rachel Rambaldi)
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The 99-Seat Beat will take a break, returning Jan. 11. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller theater companies. Comprehensive listings are posted every week at latimes.com/arts.

daryl.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @darylhmiller


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