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FESTIVAL OF CHRISTMAS: NORTHERN LIGHTS

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In her revolving cycle of 12 Christmas shows that Kerry Meads has created for Lamb's Players over the past two decades—set in differing historical periods and locales—this is the most recent, written and previously performed in 1997. Most, whatever their time and place—from Renaissance England to 20th century America—deal with conflicts and contradictions generated by colliding festive, religious, and human aspects of the winter holidays. Northern Lights takes place in 1962—sentimentally seen by some as America's final year of innocence—during the two days before Christmas in the guest-crammed home of the upper midwestern Baxter family. Fourteen characters—11 Baxters by birth or marriage, plus three visiting neighbors and friends—fill Mike Buckley's practical and detailed two-story, four room set with incident and realistic simultaneous activity, such as cooking and housekeeping, coordinated under Deborah Gilmour Smyth's meticulous direction, teeming like a Brueghel painting done in the style of Norman Rockwell.

Each character is allocated a cumulative average of around seven stage minutes to resolve his or her pre-Christmas problem or snit. Grandma (Darlene Trent) and Grandpa (Jim Chovick) have Grandpa's grumpiness. Of the five Baxter children, Bonnie (Courtney Evans) suffers from teenage-itis; Bruce (Ian Gilligan) has nightmares; little "Buzz" (Michael Drummond) frets about his parents' marriage; William (Cris O'Bryon) and his wife, Lucille (Sandy Campbell), are troubled by miscarriages; and Duane (Greg Thompson) needs to keep his visiting African-American Marine Corps buddy Carl (Keith Jefferson) comfortable amid a houseful of well-meaning but sometimes clueless white folks. The overworked father (Tom Stephenson) and the frazzled mother (playwright Meads) work through a prickly marital patch. And Aunt Else (K.B. Mercer) could use a man in her life, who just might turn out to be a neighboring widower (David Cochran Heath), also angled for by another man-hungry neighbor (Gail West) who remains forever pert and bubbly despite romantic frustration.

All the tiffs and tantrums are ameliorated by Christmas Eve with a minimum of preaching, some viewings of the aurora borealis, and mainly the good cheer generated by nine delightful traditional and period songs, arranged by Vanda Eggington and sung prettily by the cast under the musical direction of Cris O'Bryon. Jeanne Reith designed the midcentury costumes, Greg Campbell did the sound design, and Amy Cordileone choreographed cute dances with homespun sophistication.

"Festival of Christmas: Northern Lights," presented by and at Lamb's Players, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7 p.m. Dec. 4-26. $22-42. (619) 437-0600.

A LESSON IN PROPER BOW-FLUFFING TECHNIQUE

at Praxis Studios

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

In case you wanted to know everything there was to know about bow-fluffing but were afraid to ask, Trey Nichols does it all for you. Nichols, a bow-fluffer who works as an actor between holiday season gigs, tells some of his war stories as a customer service rep in a busy mall department store. Along with his ability to soothe savage customers, he has perfected an enviable gift for turning flat-packed ribbon bows into beautiful rosettes to decorate gift packages. This is something not everyone can do, especially, as Nichols find out to his horror, the four developmentally disabled youths who are dropped off for rehabilitation at the customer service department one busy day in December. With lost keys, missing children, gift-wrapping, returns, and endless customer complaints to occupy him, a harried seasonal worker doesn't need the assistance of a quartet of amateur bow-fluffers whose hearts are not in it. In his amusing solo show, directed by Lee Costello, Nichols relives one memorable day just before Christmas when he manages to tick off just about everyone on his gift list, including the floor manager, security, the credit department, a very big girl who wants to sit on Santa's lap, a number of overworked moms, a blubbering balloon-seeking baby boy, a few petty mall crooks, several agitated seniors, and of course the four several-thumbed amateur fluffers.

Bow-fluffing is a very serious business: You have to pull out the loops in a practiced but simple movement, first backwards, then forwards, but always absolutely evenly. The amiable Nichols would appear to be the least likely person to lose his cool when his little realm seems about to topple, but the pressure of turning out perfect bows and keeping the holiday-shopping public appeased would try the patience of a saint. Facing a crisis of faith, the Fluffer has to choose between happy bows or expediency. One man's experience in the consumer culture trenches takes several hilarious and tragic turns before it becomes just a painful memory that Nichols happily mines for a very funny one-man show. To which we can only say: Keep on fluffing!

"A Lesson in Proper Bow-Fluffing Technique," presented by Storey Productions/Moving Arts at Praxis Studios, 729 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. Wed.-Thu. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 1-23. $12-15. (213) 622-8906.

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