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Theater review: 'The Devil, The Witch, and The Blacksmith' 

Now in its second season, The Kingfisher Theater is hoping to carve a niche in the Rochester theater landscape as it produces new works based on classic literature and plays. The new company also has an annual production that it hopes will become a holiday tradition.

Directed by Artistic Director Kevin Dedes, "The Devil, The Witch, and The Blacksmith" is a Ukrainian folk tale derived from 19th-century writer Nikolai Gogol's story "The Night Before Christmas," adapted here by Dedes and Kingfisher's Amy Canfield.

Set on Christmas Eve in the sleepy, unassuming town of Dikanka, the villagers make their way from house to house, singing carols in exchange for holiday treats. Meanwhile, the Devil plots his revenge against Vakula, the town's blacksmith and "the most pious man in Dikanka," for painting a disparaging image of him in the church.

This Satanic vendetta comes at an unfortunate time for Vakula, who is attempting to win the heart of Oksana, the gorgeous yet vain and cruelly self-centered daughter of Tchub, a wealthy Cossack. Matters are further complicated by Vakula's mother, Solokha, a witch who is attempting to seduce Tchub to get his money. It gets murkier still due to Solokha's dubious alliance -- romantic and otherwise -- with the Devil and her subsequent indifference toward her son.

If this sounds absurd, convoluted, and oddly out of sync for a holiday theater production, that's because it is. Does the boy get the girl in the end? Does the Devil claim the soul of the boy? By the end of the play two hours later, it was difficult to muster much emotional investment in the outcome at all.

Gogol's core story is not without folksy charm. In the hands of more skillful playwrights, the purposefully one-dimensional characters may have had a kind of perverse appeal, with actors and audience alike in on the tongue-in-cheek farce.

Unfortunately, Kingfisher's adaptation feels like a series of self-indulgent tableaux aimed more at entertaining the writers and actors than at delighting theatergoers. Anachronistic references to disparate cultural touchstones like "A Christmas Carol," "The Wizard of Oz," and President Richard Nixon amount to nothing more than awkward pastiche. (A cringe-inducing ode to "Star Wars" -- "Help me, Paunchy Patsyuk, you're my only hope" -- is particularly kitschy.)

While the script does the cast no favors, and the performances were lively, by-and-large the actors came across as unnatural: characters only seemed to express themselves in direct reaction to what another had last said, rather than acting of their own accord throughout. Lines were delivered without fluidity as if reading directly from the script.

The production's strongest performance was given by Vince Dalba, whose appropriate combination of sly manipulator and hapless cartoon worked in his role as the Devil. Still, it wasn't enough to save the play from weak dialogue that attempted to explain the plot rather than simply demonstrate it.

"The Devil, The Witch, and The Blacksmith" may have been effective had it been more concise, trimming Gogol's story to focus exclusively on the central characters mentioned above rather than including all of the minor players. Also note this isn't family-friendly holiday entertainment: the play includes suggestive material suitable only for adults and the use of language like "bitch" and "slut" in reference to female characters.

Perhaps the fatal flaw in this unclever Kingfisher Theater production was that it carried barely a whiff of authentic emotion. Rather than being told a fantastical story for the stage, the audience was left to witness a trifling game played at by friends.

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