If you like your holiday entertainment laugh-filled, but still wondrous while serving a great purpose, make your next stop the Actors‚Äô Gang Theatre in Culver City. The annual “Queen Family‚Äôs Very Special Holiday Special” is a romp!
We begin with the concept that we‚Äôre watching a live telethon and pledge drive (shades of my life at KCRW) where the extended and deeply dysfunctional Queen family is trying to raise money for the sole purpose of continuing to bring these holiday telethons to you.
Master of Ceremonies Jim Queen, played by Brian T. Finney, the same actor whom I raved about in the company‚Äôs highly lauded production of “Heart of Darkness,” is an overextended gambler, desperately pushing against the clock to raise the $100,000 he owes his bookie.
He raided the family foundation and lost it all, and now has to cover his bets. That‚Äôs the real reason for this year‚Äôs telethon. An increasingly desperate Jim is being threatened with a 24-hour deadline ‚Äî or else.
Keeping things thoroughly rude, the bawdy drunken grandmother offers her scathing critiques and comments throughout the show. Politically incorrect doesn‚Äôt begin to cover these snarky nuggets.
Between the “live” shots, the stage action devolves into screaming arguments between various family members, stolen kisses of forbidden love between closeted cousins and secret affairs between in-laws.
But when the cameras are on, past the pitches for the dollars that will save Jim‚Äôs skin, you‚Äôll be both delighted and dazzled by the amazing entertainers, real ones mind you, that they‚Äôve recruited for this production.
In keeping with the court-ordered stipulation to increase the diversity of their shows, the Queen family has invited a tap dancing Wiccan zombie priest. He‚Äôs a for-real tapper and quite the showman.
Ever see a guy balance a wheelbarrow on his chin? You will! And he‚Äôll catch a tossed hamburger on a spinning umbrella, too. His persona is a cross between Mr. Rogers and Christopher Walken.
And a beautiful aerialist dangles from a long scarf and ties herself into balancing act knots; it‚Äôs a stunning act, a sort of mini Cirque du Soleil in action.
You‚Äôll crack up at the Stolzman family straight out of Amish country, including Jebediah, Jeremiah, Josiah and Abigail, who perform the act they do at barn raisings. Since musical instruments are the devil‚Äôs tools, they bang painted plastic cups on wooden stools in perfectly timed percussive rhythm.
They do a verbal ode to “Rumspringa,” the ritual year that the Amish grant their youth to work all their worldly desires out of their systems. This paean to debauchery celebrates sex, drugs, rock n‚Äô roll, and fantasy three-ways with Beyonce and Jay Z, as the young Amish rap out “You‚Äôre Gonna Miss Me When I‚Äôm Gone.” I don‚Äôt think they‚Äôre coming back home any time soon.
I had to laugh out loud at the faux Silverlake band spoof, especially the reference to performing on my alma mater‚Äôs signature music show, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” They are dressed as hipsters in hoodies, army jackets, a cutoff serape and farmer‚Äôs overalls, and their entirely flat affect masks the emotional break-up drama that the band is experiencing. Hilariously, the musical instruments they play are cell phone apps!
In a mad medley of holiday music, the Queen Boy Dancers, costumed in bright green T-shirts, red Santa caps, red shorts, black socks and shoes, do high-energy choreography to rival the famed Rockettes. Covering all the bases, the mash-up includes “Carol of the Bells,” Tom Lehrer‚Äôs satirically punny “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” Mariah Carey‚Äôs “All I Want for Christmas,” Elton John and Tim Rice‚Äôs “Circle of Life” and “Happy Kwanzaa” by Teddy Pendergrass.
Sung from the rafters, a rousing round of “Jew on Christmas” by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone will have you guffawing, while “Christmas Robots” by way of a German death metal band will blast you awake.
In the end, despite the threats, there‚Äôll be a happy resolution to Jim‚Äôs gambling dilemma, which dovetails cleverly into a message about the Actors‚Äô Gang outreach work, which really is worth supporting.
The Actors‚Äô Gang puts on 120 performances a year, 40 are pay-what-you can, but they also offer free arts education programs that help more than 400 children a year. Their free Prison Project works with 100 inmates a year, helping them connect with their emotions creatively as they prepare to re-enter society. A free Shakespeare in the Park series each summer serves 1,400 kids and 900 adults, and they partner with 10 schools, and amazing non-profits such as Inner City Arts and Homeboy Industries.
You won‚Äôt be bamboozled by this fake telethon, but you‚Äôll have a great time while helping this essential theatre company do exemplary stage work and important community outreach.
“The Queen Family‚Äôs Very Special Holiday Special” runs through Jan. 4, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Bring a toy for Operation USA. The Actors‚Äô Gang is located at 9070 Venice Blvd. in Culver City. For tickets and info visit www.TheActorsGang.com or call (310) 838-4264.
On a quieter note
Theatre 40, the Beverly Hills-based professional theatre, will present a free program of holiday themed readings at Westwood Library on Saturday, Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. The humorous and touching seasonal selections to be performed include works from a number of authors, among them Loudon Wainwright, William Maxwell and Santa Claus.
The cast of performers includes Katherine Henryk, Daniel Leslie, Melanie MacQueen, David Reynolds and James Schendel.
Admission is free. Reservations are not necessary. The library is lovely, and located at 1246 Glendon Ave. in Westwood. Call for further info: (310) 464-1739.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.