Chicago Theatre Review
No Elf on This Shelf
Barney the Elf – The Other Theatre Company
The second production in this fledgling company’s second season is another holiday offering for Chicago. And while it will primarily appeal to a certain segment of the population, the theme of this play is universal. Bigotry, bullying and just plain being nasty and mean to others is despicable any time of year; but at Christmas, a time devoted to Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men, it becomes sacrilege. In this new play with music, written by company member Bryan Renaud, the elfin Barney is helped by some new friends to accept who he is and how to overcome an intolerant world of injustice and narrow-mindedness.
Mr. Renaud’s warmhearted but slightly raunchy script (this isn’t a children’s show) is an adult parody of the popular Will Ferrell movie and stage musical, “Elf.” It’s also one more reminder that persecuting others, simply because they’re different than you, is unacceptable. In this story Barney, one of Santa’s elves, is not only optimistically chirpy and cheerful, but he’s gay. He discovers this after accidentally spilling a cup of hot cocoa on the shirt of a hunky UPS man. When Barney suggests that he remove the soiled garment for washing and sees the guy’s half-naked body, the elf experiences sexual titillation for the first time. From then on Barney must learn to accept the fact that he’s playing for the other team.
The rest of the play concerns other events at the North Pole. Santa Claus has passed away and his bitter son, Santa Junior, has inherited the holiday toy shop. Obsessed with production efficiency and money saving strategies, Junior has no time for joy, kindness or empathy. When he learns that Barney is gay, Junior uses it as an excuse to fire the elf and send him packing. As the one employee who most embodied the Christmas Spirit, Junior was jealous of Barney and found this as an excuse to get rid of him. Mrs. Claus, formerly from Chicago, advises Barney to head to the Windy City where he’ll be welcomed with open arms. She promises that it’s a liberal environment where everyone, no matter who they are, will be embraced. Barney finds this fable flawed and must learn firsthand about life in the big city before all’s well that ends well.
Bryan Renaud’s play offers a much-needed and admired message about tolerance and being true to oneself. There can never be too many reminders that bigotry is wrong. This story features a few interesting characters but the performances range from adequate to way over-the-top. Renaud’s script is choppy and doesn’t always flow smoothly from scene to scene. Songs incorporated into the story are the highlight of this show, but they’re not original. Taken from Broadway musicals and Billboard’s greatest hits, the prerecorded tunes have been shortened and their lyrics modified to fit the plot, the legality of which seems questionable. The songs, however, are performed with spirit and gusto, particularly by the likable and talented Yando Lopez, as Barney, and the lovely, leggy and glibly acerbic drag queen, Dixie Lynn Cartwright, as Zooey. However, when the greatest endorsement coming from an audience is that “the show is cute,” something’s clearly missing.
Carin Silkaitis directs this play with pluck and panache, highlighting the warmth of her lead character and his need for acceptance and understanding. Indeed, the mission of The Other Theatre Company involves telling stories of those “othered” by systems of oppression. Past productions have included plays about racial, political and sexual persecution so, on paper, this original script would seem ideal. But the polish of previous productions, like “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” and “Bent,” is missing from this holiday parody.
Still, the evening does offer some lighthearted fun. There’s a sweet Mrs. Claus, played with honesty by Maggie Cain, a chorus of handsome, high-stepping beefcake (for those who appreciate that sort of thing) and an array of smartly designed colorful costumes by Olivia Crary. Jennings Wynn’s makeup designs are exceptional and Tommy Rivera-Vega’s choreography heightens the entertainment value of most musical numbers.
While this play with music may not appeal to everyone, those looking for something light, colorful and gay, with a holiday message of Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men, will enjoy this show. Yando Lopez and Dixie Lynn Cartwright are the strongest reasons for seeing this production and, while this is no Elf on the Shelf, the pixie-like, golden-toned Mr. Lopez is likely to tickle everyone’s fancy.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 2-20 by The Other Theatre Company at The Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the Greenhouse box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.greenhousetheater.org/barney-the-elf/
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com