Jess Amy Shead and Lucia Frangione in Holy Mo! A Christmas Show! Photo by Damon Calderwood.
Jess Amy Shead and Lucia Frangione in Holy Mo! A Christmas Show! Photo by Damon Calderwood.

When you retell a well-worn story you better have something new to say, or a new way to tell it. In the Pacific Theatre production of Holy Mo! A Christmas Show! it is a whole lot of the latter.

In playwright Lucia Frangione’s new play, the birth of Jesus is told through the eyes of a traveling theatre troupe. Its trio – Follie, Buffoona and Guff – tell the nativity story with a grab bag of performance styles, some moments of topicality, and a whole lot of fun.

King Herod as if played by Matthew McConaughey, a swashbuckling and suitably whiskered Magnificat, and even the appearance of Sam and Dean from the television show Supernatural, are only a small number of the anachronisms inside Frangione’s retelling.

Add Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”, a nod to Justin Bieber, plus an entire scene built around the Matrix films, and you get the idea that just about anything is possible. So wildly inventive are these anachronisms, there is an almost giddy anticipation that builds from start to finish.

The styles Frangione invoke are equally as varied. Clowning and its close cousin buffoonery, musical theatre, storytelling, and even a surprisingly funny mime sequence. While it all could easily add up to a chaotic dilution, thanks to Frangione’s writing skills, and under Kerry van der Griend’s careful direction, Holy Mo! rarely loses its focus on story.

Anita Wittenberg as the Angel of the Lord annouces Mary's pregnancy. Photo by Damon Calderwood.
Anita Wittenberg as the Angel of the Lord announces Mary’s pregnancy. Photo by Damon Calderwood.

The play is also peppered with the more serious. It is within those moments though that Frangione’s freewheeling tale come to a screeching halt. Whether it was a misplaced Catholic guilt in telling a bible story in such an irreverent fashion, or a desire to appeal to Pacific Theatre’s faith-based mandate, it felt at times as if two plays were competing. Thankfully though, even as Frangione attempts to inject the more powerful and profound, it wasn’t long before we were back to the foolishness.

Bringing it all to life are a terrific trio. Frangione and Anita Wittenberg reunite having originated their two characters some twenty plus years ago, and are joined on stage by Jess Amy Shead.

In a show that requires many extremes, it is Wittenberg who appears most grounded and real. There is a playfulness to her performance as Guff that has a strange ability to simultaneously make you smile and tug at your heart. That isn’t to say Frangione and Shead are overshadowed, as they too embrace their various characters and storytelling styles with a seemingly unreserved glee.

Heipo Leung’s set largely consists of a wagon that while somewhat finicky and clunky in the small Pacific Theatre space, transforms into all manner of platforms and conveyances. Amy McDougall’s costumes are as colourful and witty as Andrea Loewen’s choreography, and John Webber’s lighting design concludes with a wondrous starry night.

Best when its irreverence took centre stage, the real success in Holy Mo! A Christmas Show! is in knowing it will appeal to both believer and non-believer alike.

Holy Mo! A Christmas Show! by Lucia Frangione. Directed by Kerry van der Griend. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 12 AVE West, Vancouver) until December 31. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.