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Sweet and Sour

A buffet of nontraditional holiday theater fare

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With December 25 still three weeks off, the Reader performing arts listings so far include ten shows with "Christmas" in the title, of which five are versions of A Christmas Carol. And that's just the tip of the North Polar iceberg. Reverent holiday theater is so ubiquitous it's bred an almost equally ubiquitous backlash. Here are our reviews of some of the alternative holiday shows. —Tony Adler

Cockettes: The Christmas Spectacular A Mr. Rogers type in a god-awful-ugly Christmas vest plunks out carols on the piano while intoning bromides like "even the homeless aren't homeless on Christmas because it's Christmas." A horny mouse schleps through The Nutcracker Suite with clumsy dancers in top-heavy costumes. A chirpy woman reads "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" while a bored guy in a Santa hat provides nonsensical sound effects. If a bunch of your coworkers threw this show together and stumbled through it for the office party, it would be a smash. But for the venerable Annoyance Theatre, with its deep well of talent, an hour this thin and slipshod is an embarrassment.  Through 12/20: Sun 8 PM, Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway, 773-561-4665,, $10. —Justin Hayford

The Feats of Strength: Six New Plays for Surviving the Holidays Emma Stanton's Where Did Everybody Go? epitomizes the impudent, dyspeptic tone this showcase of holiday one-acts aspires to. A hyperbolically dysfunctional family's "nice Thanksgiving dinner" collapses under the strain of a micromanaging mother who obsesses over the flatware placement, her daughter's past boyfriends' bad teeth, and "the Jews." Meanwhile, a seven-year-old wanders around in the basement and pokes his eyes out on dad's spear collection. Director Miguel Nunez's cast play the mayhem straight, resulting in a taut, farcical delight. The other five scripts in this 90-minute evening from Dramatis Personae are largely undisciplined, failing to establish consistent tones and tossing satiric barbs in scattershot fashion at obvious targets. Generally sluggish pacing further quashes the comedy.  Through 12/19: Fri-Sat 10:30 PM, Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N. Broadway, 773-528-9696,, $15. —JH

It Came Upon a Midnight Queen Jesus appears at the end of this Christmas comedy, in a pageant set to the music of Queen. But it's the ten-year-old girl playing him (buoyant adult actress Cynthia Shur) who saves, delivering her small Nebraska town from the clutches of a wicked-witch-like tycoon. Angie McMahon's script says more about the dangers of the Internet to children than about the holiday or corporate malfeasance, and its lack of a clear theme combines with other off-target elements—particularly the casting, several jokes, and some overlong video segments—to make for a mediocre evening. A pressure cooker blowing up in a Looney Tunes-style explosion is pretty funny, though.  Through 12/19: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park, 773-865-7731,, $15. —Ryan Hubbard

Madame Barker Holiday Variety Show The last time I saw Madame Barker—during the summer, in 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal—she was at the center of an evening-length melee, with members of her crew chasing one another all over the set and into the audience. But melees are a 500 Clown thing. This is Barker's own show, and she's made it intimate and relatively orderly, though not exactly refined. The raunchy, hard-drinking chanteuse created and played by Molly Brennan hosts a roster of guest performers that changes from week to week, and sings selections from her repertoire of John Fournier tunes—including her signature "My Love Is Coming to Your Town to Kick Your Ass"—with Fournier himself at the piano. There are also numbers by the Barker Dames, a motley bunch of chorines whose charm owes a lot to the many shadings of cluelessness they display. The opening-night show had one very high high (suave vaudevillian David Kovac) as well as an awfully low low (F. Tyler Burnet, far too authentic as a stand-up who's "not good at stand-up"). Brownies were provided, but restaurateur Rick Bayless is scheduled to create "concoctions" for the December 4 and 11 shows, so there may be better snacks coming.  Through 12/11: Fri 11 PM, Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston, 773-383-9429,, $10. —TA

Mother Superior's Ho-Ho-Holy Night This one-woman show created by Vicki Quade may give parochial-school graduates comedic flashbacks. Kathleen Puls Andrade plays Mother Superior, a no-nonsense nun helping Saint Gabriel's church put on a Vatican-worthy holiday pageant. While spouting little-known facts about the origins of Father Christmas and what really happened at the Nativity, she dishes out discipline to her cowering audience. Luckily, she says, as she sends someone to stand in the corner, she forgot her ruler at home. The show's humor depends on a participatory audience, so pray for a gum-chewing, back-talking, original-sin loving crowd.  Through 1/3: Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, 312-988-9000,, $30. —Marissa Oberlander

The Santaland Diaries David Sedaris's comic memoir about his stint at Macy's playing one of Santa's elves has lost a lot of its bite since he first read it on NPR in 1992. The snide commentary on Christmastime binge shoppers seems almost quaint in these recession-strapped times, and the mockery of pushy parents, clueless kids, obnoxious store managers, and eccentric Santa impersonators comes across as the verbal equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But in this Theater Wit mounting of Joe Mantello's 1996 stage adaptation, Mitchell Fain's offhanded, seemingly improvised delivery and interaction with the audience give the script a much-needed freshness. Recalling Joan Rivers with his raspy voice and bitchy dishiness, Fain makes the show his own, transforming the monologue into a stand-up act.  Through 1/2: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 7:30 and 9:30 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM, Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252,,$24. —Albert Williams

Silent Nightmare: A Christmas Dirge Having closed his North Pole operation on account of economic hardship, sadistic toy manufacturer Santa Claus has relocated to an abandoned GM plant outside Akron, and rebellion simmers among his much-abused elves. Meanwhile, a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder has come home to find that his wife slept with everyone in town, elves included, while he was away. War and money woes are certainly topical themes this (and every?) holiday season, but the Annoyance Theatre's new comedy neglects those subjects almost as soon as it raises them. Instead, you get a bunch of tasteless but still somehow boring gags about sex, violence, and sexual violence, spread out across two muddled plots that don't even begin to converge. It's sloppy, sour stuff.  Through 12/26: Sat 8 PM, Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway, 773-561-4665,, $15. —Zac Thompson

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