TheatreNOW, Wilmington’s premier dinner theatre, has a tasty answer to any holiday entertainment conundrum: a Christmas mystery show! Juan Fernandez directs “Christmas Cactus” by Eliot Byerrum every Friday and Saturday through December 23.
It is Christmas and Fred Booker (Brian Helgesen) has a problem. Actually, he has two problems: He can’t tell his overbearing mother, Adelaide (Elizabeth Michaels), the truth and his boss, Cactus O’Rielly (Cathy Sanborn Street) won’t sign the lease renewal to keep their office open. What is a guy to do? He knows Cactus is a great detective and she is meant for this and, frankly, so is he. But that doesn’t mean she knows it.
Enter Neville F. Smedley (Ken Campbell) and Ramon Ramirez (Ezra Wool), each of whom have just broken out of jail and are bent on finding Jake Marley, the sleuth who used to have the office.
Apparently, Marley framed Smedley for embezzling money from the Tiny Tim fund to build a hospital for handicapped children. Ramirez seems to be his accomplice in the escape—and he has his own set of problems. Fred’s day goes from bad to worse when his mother shows up at the office and mistakes the hostage situation for a murder mystery party. Poor Cactus has her own misguided visitor situation in the form of Stuart Windsor (Tony Choufani), the assistant DA and Cactus’ ardent suitor. Can this unexpected gathering find a way to clear Smedley’s name in time for Christmas?
TheatreNOW’s holiday production actually is a funny show with a refreshing and different take on the holiday tale.
There is an epidemic in Wilmington of performers with scripts in hand onstage. In this case Elizabeth Michaels stepped into the role of Adelaide with a little less than 48 hours notice—how terrifying (and nothing short of heroic)! One has to assume by next weekend she will put down the script. With such challenges, she does rise to the occasion to make the audience believe she is a lonely widow woman who steamrolls over her son’s life and forces everyone to fall in line with her view.
Helgesen and Street have a fun and close relationship and a lot of non-verbal communication. We get the sense they wouldn’t really spend time together outside of the office, but the time they do spend together is much more important than they want to let on. Their collective bafflement at Smedley and Ramirez’s appearance is relatable.
Campbell’s Smedley is supposed to have been too dumb to have committed a crime so complicated. It is actually Ezra Wool’s Ramirez I liked the best. He begins the show as the unlikely and unwilling sidekick. In spite of being treated like comedic relief, he is actually the one in the room with the most on the line but also the most open heart. (His love and concern for books was beautifully relatable for fellow bibliophiles.) Every moment he is on stage, Wool is focused on his objective and it shows through in his body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.
When reading Frank Herbert’s novel, “Dune,” the ending is apparent and obvious by page 7. But readers hang in for the next several hundred pages to see how he makes it unfold. Similarly, the solution to “Christmas Cactus” mystery is clear 15 minutes into the show. The dramatic tension is created by waiting for someone to discover the evidence visible on stage. Will they knock it over? Shoot it open? Tear it apart in a fight? It is actually quite fascinating.
Similarly, the sparks that fly between Street’s Cactus and Choufani’s Stuart have all the makings of a grand passion. From the beginning, we know they are two peas in a pod. Choufani’s Stuart clearly knows—if only he could get Cactus to pay attention long enough to see it, too. The pleading frustration from a man who is so clearly used to being in control of every situation is simultaneously riveting and irritating, both for the audience and Cactus.
From Street we do get a sense she is at a crossroads in her life and facing big, uncertain decisions. She lives up to her prickly nickname: She may be beautiful but stand back.
It is actually Choufani’s Stuart who steals the show. His drunken antics, combined with his bare, beating heart, make his personal struggle of professional obligations and Cactus’ moral arguments enchanting. He and Wool’s journeys were the two most believable to me.
Chef Denise Gordon served up what is probably the best holiday meal I will have—but that is no surprise. It is hard to make salad new and exciting, yet, somehow, Gordon does. Yes, there is the expected plate of greens, peppers, onions, but it is the creamy roasted garlic and herb vinaigrette dressing that does it. Seriously, I was sopping up the dregs with a dinner roll because it was too good to waste.
Actually, much like the show puts a bit of a twist on something we think we know so well (i.e. a Chirstmas show), Gordon’s menu does the same. Flounder rolled and stuffed with both crab and lobster, then covered in a lemon butter sauce so light it’s not visible, but then it hits the palate in decadence. And there’s the perfect complement to it all: fried capers on top. Add in hushpuppies for the best of meals.
Gordon also turned out a transformative experience with beets. I do not, as a rule, eat beets. Over the years Gordon has changed my mind about so many foods I refused to eat growing up, I have learned to always at least try whatever she serves since I will probably end up loving it. Her red beet schnitzel and spaghetti squash is no exception. She made “cutlets” of the beets and somehow made them crispy—not dense but actually crispy—and served them over a layered tower of spaghetti squash, asparagus and cheese. Is it lasagna? Not quite. Is it a tower of vegetable goodness? Yes, but so much more—so rich and creamy it is really hard to believe it is somewhat healthy.
For me the TheatreNOW show felt like a good start to the holidays: great food (so much great food!), fun entertainment and a new look at finding a holiday miracle. Hats off to the cast for making it work with sudden changes in the lineup and for putting on an entertaining, fun-filled, miracle-turning show.