Xmaz Exorcism

If you don't have to be Jewish to love this production of The Tenth Man, you don't have to be Christian to feel disappointed and slightly nauseated by the Florida Shakespeare Festival's Voices of Christmas. It's a major step backward for a new group trying to establish an artistic voice. Composed of songs from many nations, cutesy little anecdotes from the actors themselves (none of whom are writers, believe me), and free association about Christmas food and traditions ("jingle bells!" "Santa's lap!" "fruitcake!" A yeech!), this abomination A it certainly doesn't merit appearances in a theater A by West Coast author and director Ruben Sierra is pretentious, falsely joyous, and worst of all, artless. Mr. Sierra obviously feels that by decorating a stage like the ground floor of Saks' Fifth Avenue (complete with red and green trimmings galore and a BIG Christmas tree) and by getting a black actress, a Jewish actress, some Latin actors, and letting them talk about their different traditions, he's a forerunner in poignant literary liberalism. Sentiment doesn't come that cheaply to me, especially with such ineptitude. Even the singers, who aren't bad, are too small a group to properly convey the songs. If you want great caroling, go to midnight mass.

Every standard stereotype about ethnic groups is also annoyingly emphasized. The black woman "wants ta party," the chubby-cute Jewish girl speaks in a nasal voice, and the Latins cha-cha around. To explain how poor and in a certain way offensive this production is, I'll tell you how I honestly reacted. During my two-year tenure as a critic at this publication, I have only walked out at intermission (a time-honored tradition among critics, by the way) on three shows -- and this was one of them.

The cloying tone, which Sierra frantically seeks to foist upon the audience, is no better illustrated than by the forced performance of the usually talented Margot Moreland. Although fine in voice, Moreland poses, gestures, and emotes with such sickening and unconvincing sincerity, complete with a wide smile continuously plastered on her face, you want to throw a pie in her kisser. The theater is for portraying reality or comedy, Margot, not for selling Hallmark cards.

At another point, the Jewish token player -- Gail Byer -- tells of being an elf at Macy's in New York and seeing the true spirit of Christmas: a little boy giving his mug to Santa as a gift. If Sierra, or Byer, wanted to demonstrate anything but a shallow understanding of Christ's words, perhaps the story would be about helping a prostitute with HIV, or going to work in a food kitchen.

Since I don't believe that if there is an omnipotent Spirit, the cockles of His or Her heart are richly warmed by stories of Santa's reindeer or spinning dreidels, I have no problem knocking Christmas shows or plays set in temples. I review dramatic literature and performance, not good intentions. As such, The Tenth Man is worth seeing at any time of year, and Voices of Christmas should disappear with this holiday.

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