Wise Guys: The First Christmas Story
With tree lots starting to pop up wherever they can find space, decorations and lights taking up aisles in stores and shining on homes in the night, familiar music featuring sleigh bells playing on the radio, not to mention the annual barrage of new Hallmark Xmas movies (this year there are 42 of them, and Douglas Adams is rolling over in his grave), I'd say that the obvious answer is yes.
With the season also comes the annual barrage of holiday plays, including multiple Christmas Carols among an eclectic mix of mostly returning shows. One brand new play, though, is Wise Guys: The First Christmas Story, a retelling of the story of the Magi, at The Factory Theater. On one level, it plays the part of a farcical, very silly show (Monty Python's The Magi), but first-time playwright and Factory ensemble member Chase Wheaton-Werle isn't content with that. Taking a cue from Jessica Dickey's Galileo's Daughter, he interweaves this story with another: the tale of a young Christian researcher trying to find evidence of the tale of the three wise men in the Vatican archives. It's this element of the show that is easily the most compelling, and Wheaton-Werle wisely allows it to flow in and out of his version of the more established story. Director Becca Holloway integrates these separate stories smoothly and easily, and she also takes great advantage of the lovely set design from Manny Ortiz.
Lizzy Mosher and Harrison Lampert play the scholar, Rhys, and her mentor of the moment, a burned-out archivist named Adriano. After she discovers that the texts she wants are in Latin, she gets Adriano (who wonders how she managed to become a grad student in religion without knowing the dead language herself) to read and translate for her. Mosher adds a lovely aspect of sincerity to contrast her counterpart's cynicism, and the give and take between them is itself a lovely contrast to the silliness of the main tale (which purports to be a live version of the story he is reading to her).
In that story, the wise men meet each other while trying to find transportation to follow the star, which they have each heard about separately, westward to the Holy Child. (Ashley Yates plays an angel Gabriel who is clearly having fun manipulating this action.) Melchior (Josh Razavi) is from the Far East and is very surprised to find that he wasn't the only one called to witness Jesus' birth. Gaspar (Shail Modi) is a Hindu monk who has learned of the prophecy that the Birth will herald an age of peace. Balthazar (Michael Jones) is a Nubian prince and the youngest of the trio; his inexperience at traveling and his sometimes simplistic ideas are the butt of many jokes, but he is just as determined and honest as his companions.
On their journey, the three run into a "ride-sharing" camel purveyor named Ubar (Amber Washington); if you read that as Oo-Bar, you're missing the joke. Ubar pops up along the way, ready to aid the wise men with their transportation needs, and Washington has a good time with the role, which is among the play's goofiest. It is not necessarily the most ridiculous, though. That would be members of the group of bandits that captures our wandering gift-givers. The brief moments between two of their guards, Rachel A. Kim and Washington, are priceless.
Those gifts, by the way, are all contained in very tiny blue beaded purses, probably a device to allow them to be easily concealed by Magi with no pockets, but it didn't work for me. Though Wheaton-Werle clearly intended it, as evidenced by several bits of the "which gift is which" variety, it makes very little visual sense. (And yes, I know I just complained about a prop in a farce making no sense; sometimes I wonder about myself.) What works much better is the ongoing joke that renders almost every other prop into two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs thanks to props designer Henry Bender. Bender's creations are uniformly amusing as well as clearly echoing their alleged practical purposes.
The magi's arrival in Jerusalem leads to shining moments for two more ensemble members as well as a tour de force opportunity for Lampert, who loses his archivist wig and enters the action as a Herod who is so clearly derived from the one in Jesus Christ, Superstar that his appearances are accompanied by brief snippets from that musical's "Herod's Song"–just brief enough to stay under the limitations of copyright laws, which seems fully appropriate to a character who wants whatever he can get. In his scenes, we also meet an honest aide-de-camp (Sripadh Pulligilla) who befriends and helps to free the travelers. Pulligilla here plays probably the show's most sympathetically written character, with the possible exception of Rhys. The fulfillment of the prophecy finally arrives as Jesus's actual birth–well, its aftermath, anyway–opens up a whole new level of Ortiz's clever set while allowing Cindy Moon's inventive costumes (as well as a final ensemble member, Kim, who plays a not-very-happy Mary) a moment to shine.
Wise Guys is a very funny play (though I could have done without the very loud excessive laughter from one audience member who clearly hoped it would be contagious; it was distracting and, anyway, totally unnecessary). It is also a very thoughtful play, and Holloway's direction takes full advantage of that with the help of lighting designer Ellie Humphreys and sound designer Isaac Mandel, all of whom provide moments to allow reflection within the humor. Despite the familiar Biblical story, this is not a play designed to preach to a single religion; in fact, its characters represent a wide range of beliefs. (Melchior's Zoroastrianism and Gaspar's Hinduism are practically additional characters, and Balthazar's Muslim background, while not as clearly spelled out, is also easy to see. And then of course, given the setting, there are lots of Jews, most notably Herod and Mary–and Jesus himself.)
For a first play from a new playwright, Wise Guys does a whole lot of things very well. It's fun, funny, whimsical–Gabriel shows up in many odd places–and thoughtful; there are a whole lot of shows that would be happy to be one or two of those things.
Wise Guys: The First Christmas Story runs through December 16, 2023, at The Factory Theater, 1623 Howard Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, lease visit thefactorytheater.com.