As dysfunctional family Christmases go, War for the Holidays is pretty tame. Then again, in this first original theatrical production from Forbidden Vancouver, one must remember that it is 1915.
Taking place at the Roedde House in Vancouver’s West End, this immersive site-specific piece takes the conceit that the audience are invited guests for a Christmas party at the Gregson family home. Set during the First World War, family secrets are revealed, and things start to heat up more than the stuffy Roedde house itself.
Using the downstairs rooms of the 1893 heritage building, co-writer and director Tiffany Anderson makes good use of the space, although it would have been an added bonus to have been able to explore some of the upstairs rooms.
With only twenty people per show the rooms never feel overly crowded and at one point Anderson cleverly splits up the group along gender lines. We never do find out what the women discussed during their time away from the men, and it would have been interesting to have that part of evening weaved back into the story somehow.
Anderson and co-writer Will Woods cover a lot of the hot button issues of the time including the burgeoning suffrage movement and a quick nod to temperance. Largely exploring the role of women in society at the time, the playwrights provide a living history lesson of sorts.
While those issues are at times fascinating, not the least of which was the idea that at the time the legal definition of “persons” did not include women, they are never really explored in any meaningful way. Instead the playwrights are content to present their various themes through a daughter looking for more, a father who is largely disinterested, and a mother who is shocked to learn her daughter has grander plans than maintaining her upper-middle class status as a homemaker.
As we already know that the women’s issues explored here have been resolved in future years, it feels sometimes as if there is something missing. Perhaps it is as a result of trying to cram so much into the play’s short sixty minutes, we never have an opportunity to really connect with any of these characters. While we can appreciate their various plights, and maybe even learn a thing or two, there is little time to actually get to know them.
The ending is surprising and ambiguous, but largely satisfying as it makes no attempt to wrap things up with a perfect bow. The awkwardness of the final scene feels appropriate, but you are left with the impression that there was no clear plan on how to actually conclude the evening.
The entire cast – Matthew Bissett, Caitlin McFarlane, Ranae Miller, Rebecca Walters and Brett Willis – commit to the interactive nature of the play. Never an easy feat, the ad-libs felt organic, and the scripted interactions never felt forced.
Staying true to the period feel the costumes are spot-on, and one could not ask for a better backdrop. Small details can make a difference, with things getting a little incongruous as dessert is served on paper plates with plastic forks, and mother Gregson’s cherished letter seems much too contemporary.
As a history lesson, War for the Holidays makes for a charming evening, complete with holiday cocktails, fig pudding, and the requisite holiday drama. It may even have you doing some more in-depth research on some of the issues when you get home. As theatre, you’ll wish the playwrights had spent a little more time exploring what makes their characters tick.
War for the Holidays written by Tiffany Anderson and Will Woods. Directed by Tiffany Anderson. A Forbidden Vancouver production. On stage at Roedde House (1415 Barclay St, Vancouver) December 12-18. Visit https://forbiddenvancouver.ca for ticket and more information.