TAG's 'Oratorio' dulls poem


POSTED: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Four of Hawaii's major theater groups have recognized the existence of Christmas with their year-end productions in 2009, each in a different way and from a different perspective. Manoa Valley Theatre presented a secular seasonal comedy, “;Winter Wonderettes.”; Diamond Head Theatre emphasized romance with “;Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas.'”; Honolulu Theatre for Youth teamed up with Hawaii Opera Theatre for a beautiful production of “;Amahl and the Night Visitors,”; an English-language opera that indirectly references the religious origins of Christmas without making the story a Sunday school lesson.

The Actors Group presentation of W.H. Auden's epic poem “;For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”; as theater approaches the religious foundation of Christmas straight on with an ambitious production that is equal parts staged reading and church sermon. Some members of the cast deliver their lines conversationally, while others appear to be “;on book”; — although, to be fair, most sermons are probably delivered with the use of notes.

Co-directors John Wythe White and Jan McGrath present the story in a churchlike setting; two stained-glass windows are the backdrop, and two rows of chairs provide choirlike accommodations for cast members who are not performing. Richard Valasek, looking every bit a priest or minister, provides narration from stage left; McGrath narrates from stage right.





        » Where: The Actors Group Theatre, 1116 Smith St., second floor

» When: 7:30 p.m. today; continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday


» Cost: $20 general admission; $15 seniors; $12 students, military and groups of 10 or more


» Info: 722-6941 or www.taghawaii.net


White emerges from the audience for the two most interesting and accessible vignettes in the show.

First, as Joseph, he suffers the taunts of men who note that Mary was visibly pregnant prior to their marriage. Joseph, aware of the nature of Mary's pregnancy but unable to reveal it to others, cannot defend himself and must ponder his situation in silence.

White returns after intermission in the role of Herod, a progressive modern ruler who takes pride in the improvements he has made in his kingdom. Herod asks rhetorically, “;Why couldn't this wretched kid have been born somewhere else?”; and wonders, “;Why should God dislike me so? I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy.”;

Jim Hesse adds a bit of bizarre comedy with his impression of Caesar Augustus ordering the census. Karen Valasek plays Mary with an engaging wide-eyed wonder that suggests an innocent child-woman stepping out into unknown territory.

Other members of the cast don sashes of various colors to indicate the characters they're playing — angels, shepherds, wise men, soldiers and other biblical characters.

White, McGrath and TAG deserve credit for tackling the material, but the staging falls short of doing justice to Auden's writing or the talent of the cast. The action comes to a standstill when the lights go dark, cast members come and go in darkness, and pictures are projected on the backdrop. Some images clearly illustrate the story, while others are so abstract they could be about anything; some were apparently provided by a local artist in exchange for the exposure.

The musical interludes also fizzle. The sound is never present enough for the melodies to be appreciated and add to the sense of wonder — or curiosity — inherent in Christ's birth.