The holidays come with a lot of pressure, and sometimes it's a relief to escape the Ghost of Christmas Pending and sit in a quiet, dark theater with other frazzled humans. This year, Blackfriars Theatre chose to produce a locally written world premiere, "The Flight Before Christmas," in place of a better known holiday show (in years past, the theater has produced "The Game's Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays," "The Santa Land Diaries," and "It's a Wonderful Life").
"The Flight Before Christmas" follows the story of Flight 585 en route to -- you guessed it -- Rochester, New York, on Christmas Eve. Manned by alcohol-inhibited pilot Deke Slider (a slimy-yet-charming John Forrest Thompson), the flight has an emergency crash landing, and only a handful of passengers survive. The narrator, of sorts, is flight attendant Carol Dunbar (the always-commanding Kerry Young), who guides the show through various past and present vignettes.
The show's writers -- Jeff Andrews, Young, and Abby DeVuyst -- have roots in improvisational comedy as members of and writers for both the Canary in a Coal Mine and Unleashed! Improv troupes. Young and DeVuyst have also written and acted in sold-out Rochester Fringe Festival shows for the last few years. All three writers perform in "The Flight Before Christmas" as central characters.
Perhaps because of the writers' improv backgrounds, the show skews to that sort of feel. (At times it even felt as though the lines were being "written" on the spot.) No subject is off-limits -- including dildos, Pittsford, drug trafficking, politics, cults, and a plastic surgery-induced coma. It's not exactly a show that screams "family-friendly," but that was never promised.
Including the writers, the seven-person cast is made up of several other improv performers -- Thompson and Megan Mack of Thank You Kiss, and BJ Scanlon of Broken Couch -- and actor Abby Kate Herron, who was recently seen in Blackfriars' production of "Heathers" as Heather McNamara. For the most part, the ensemble is strong. Building a show from the ground up isn't easy, and the group does an admirable job defining their roles when the nature of the script depicts caricatures rather than characters. Mack's interpretation of a socially starved, manic scientist (a hat tip to "Lost" fans) is worth feeling sorry for, especially.
Andrews is the comedic center of the cast, both literally and figuratively, as he spends most of the show bound to an airplane seat center stage. His facial expressions translate to the furthest row in the theater, which plays nicely to his character's histrionic range of emotions. As a Southern mama's boy, Scanlon's role is similar to a live action New Yorker cartoon mocking trust fund, playboy millennials. Opposite him is the codependent, malpracticing Dr. Quinn, played by an enthusiastic DeVuyst. Herron plays a cult sister wife with six first names -- "Mary" for short -- and wears a pregnant belly throughout the show because she's about to give birth at any point, of course.
Director Stephanie Roosa makes her Blackfriars debut with this production, and she also had a difficult task. There was no basis to build the show upon, although dramaturg Eric Evans's notes are always insightful. The snow-covered set design by Eric Williamson, who previously designed "Assassins" and "Heathers" at Blackfriars, is fun to look at, especially the Velcro airplane and the "burning" airplane pieces. Props by John Engel and costumes by Kayleigh Yancey Barclay add to the "Survivor" feel of the set.
To borrow an in-flight phrase, there's a bit of turbulence in the two-hour period, but that's to be expected with any brand new show. Most of this comes from two distinct sources: the show's runtime -- waning audience reactions attest to the fact that it could have been 15 or 20 minutes shorter -- and the fact that the plot relies heavily on audience participation, which for some people is most unwelcome. Friday's audience participants were largely good sports, especially "Tina," who was so convincing that she should be considered for the show's next run.
After the show ended on Friday, a trio of patrons reacted on their way to the parking lot.
"That was so funny."
"Really? I didn't think it was that funny."
"I loved it!"
The polarization of their comments speaks to the type of show "The Flight Before Christmas" is: it's non-traditional, kind of like opening presents before Christmas or choosing to forego holiday decorations. Without providing any spoilers, it's safe to say there's no moral to this story, no angels getting wings, no midnight visits from spirits, no small hearts growing three sizes. And maybe that's OK. Despite a few hiccups, this is a fun holiday show with no strings attached and no larger questions to ponder after it ends. Sometimes, that's just what an audience needs.