Playwriting/Directing’s Top Picks for Alternative Holiday Theatre

woman and man in santa hat

With the holidays right around the corner, theatres all around the country will be putting on their productions of plays such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical or A Christmas Carol. Looking for another option to get your holiday theatre fix?

Playwriting/Directing faculty members Liz Engelman and KJ Sanchez list their top picks for wintry works of theatre.

Liz Engelman’s Picks:

Wintertime by Charles Mee

“You never hear of someone who stepped into love, they fell, they plunged, they lost themselves.”

man in robe with other people in room

Photo: Thom Schnarre (Station Theatre, 2014)

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed romantic comedy, then Wintertime by Charles Mee has everything you need. The play begins with two young lovers, Jonathon and his girlfriend, Ariel. Convinced that Ariel is his one true love, Jonathon wants to propose to her on New Year’s Eve and plans a romantic getaway to his divorced parent’s vacation home. Upon arrival, Jonathon is both shocked and annoyed to find that his mother, Maria, and her French lover, Francois, had similar plans and have already occupied the house. To make matters even more awkward, Jonathan’s father, Frank, shows up that same day with his male lover Edmund. Conflicts arise, jealousy abounds and a near death experience forces the couples to reexamine and eventually reappreciate their relationships. In the end, Wintertime by Charles Mee celebrates love in its rawest form across all genders and relationships.


A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration by Paula Vogel

“The hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself”

abraham lincoln sitting on chair reading note

Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times (New York Theatre Workshop, 2012)

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration by Paula Vogel can be described as Hamilton-esque with a holiday twist. Set on Christmas Eve during the middle of the Civil War, this play includes familiar, historical figures including Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Walt Whitman. The play focuses on several subplots, from the Union and Confederate troops on the battlefield, Abraham Lincoln attempting to find a quick end to the war and a former slave escaping to the north with her daughter. As these stories intertwine, the characters manage to find holiday joy and cheer in an otherwise bleak and bloody moment in American history.


A Tuna Christmas by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams 

“Stanley, damnit, don’t cuss on Christmas!”

two men in drag

Photo: Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography (Spotlighters Theatre, 2015)

Contrary to its title, A Tuna Christmas has nothing to do with fish, but it has plenty to do with Christmas. This comedy set in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas. The story centers around the town’s annual Christmas Yard Display Contest. However, a mysterious “Christmas Phantom,” known for vandalizing the yard displays, has all the contestants on edge. To make matters worse, the town’s annual production of A Christmas Carol might not happen because of financial troubles. To add to the chaos and comedic nature of the production, all twenty characters are played by the same two actors. Through the characters’ struggles and failures, this holiday play shines a new light on Texas culture and brings a heavy dose of hilarity to the Christmas season.

KJ Sanchez’s Picks:

The Lion in Winter by James Goldman

“What shall we hang, the holly or each other?”

medieval people

Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp (Guthrie Theater, 2016)

If you dread the holidays because of time spent with a dysfunctional family, you might feel better after seeing the The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. Filled with adultery, sibling rivalry and dungeons, this medieval play is set on Christmas Eve and tells the tale of the life of King Henry II of England. Henry, feeling in the holiday spirit, decides to release his imprisoned wife Eleanor, who has been thrown in a dungeon for ten years for attempting to overthrow him. Eleanor will spend Christmas with her three sons John, Geoffrey and Richard, her husband Henry and his French mistress, Alais, who happens to be half Henry’s age. To make matters even more volatile, Henry and Eleanor’s three sons are each secretly plotting to overtake their father’s throne. Critics have compared The Lion in Winter to the popular television series, A Game of Thrones, and fans of both can find comfort in knowing that your family may not be so bad after all (Read full review here).


Reckless by Craig Lucas

Things happen for a reason… Or do they?”

woman standing in window sill

Photo: Mark L. Saperstein (SpeakEasy Stage Company, 2009)

Rachel Fitzsimons loves everything about Christmas, from picking out gifts for her loving family to listening to Christmas songs on the radio while snuggled up in bed with her husband. However, it is on one Christmas Eve that Rachel’s seemingly perfect, idyllic world comes crashing down when she learns that her husband has a put a hit out on her. Suddenly, Rachel’s life takes a sharp turn from The Stepford Wives to Thelma and Louise as she literally escapes out her kitchen window in just her robe and slippers, leaving her children, her home and her life as she knows it behind. While on the run from a deadly hitman, Rachel changes her name and is eventually taken in by a seemingly kind and charitable man named Lloyd. But like Rachel, both Lloyd and his paraplegic, deaf wife, Pooty, have secrets. Through a series of unexpected events, Rachel learns that life can sometimes take a turn for the worst and often times there’s no rhyme and reason for it. Looking for something a little less cheerful and a little more thrilling? Look no further than Reckless by Craig Lucas.


The Santaland Diaries by Joe Mantello

“I had two people say that to me today: I’m going to have you fired. Go ahead, be my guest. I’m wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn’t get any worse than this.”

man in elf costume

Photo: Justin Namon (Parade Productions, 2012)

For anyone who’s seen Miracle on 34th Street, The Santaland Diaries is a humorous (and perhaps slightly more realistic) response to this beloved holiday classic. Both works focus on a children’s attraction named “Santaland” which is set up at Macy’s department store during the holiday season, but that’s where the similarities end. Joe Mantello’s play is an adaptation of a humorous essay written by David Sedaris when he worked as a Christmas elf in “Santaland.” It turns out it’s not all gumdrops and candycanes. Sedaris writes of managing crazy parents (“Rachel, get on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about,”), drunk Santa Clauses and ridiculous looking, tight costumes. Looking for a laugh and some sarcasm to go with your eggnog? Check out Joe Mantello’s The Santaland Diaries.

Honorable Mention

Dream of Perfect Sleep by Kevin Kautzman 
UTNT (UT New Theatre) 2013

Written by alumnus Kevin Kautzman and staged as part of UTNT (UT New Theatre) 2013, Dream of Perfect Sleep tells the heartbreaking story of Mary and Gene, who are old. Mary suffers from severe vertigo and just wants to watch her show, gosh-darn-it. Gene has some big news for their middle-aged kids. When Melissa and Robert return to a home decorated for the holidays (when it’s not the holidays), the family must make a hard decision about what it means to exit this world gracefully. While this play may not truly be a holiday story, it evokes the spirit, suffering, love and sadness often associated with the passage of time felt around the Christmas season. (Featured image. Photo: Josh Rasmussen)

Written by Andrew Blumfield
The University of Texas at Austin

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