Bethlehem or Bust
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 11, 2010
Bethlehem or Bust, a new holiday show by Jeff Lewonczyk, presented as part of the Brick Theater's Fight Fest, offers a fun new twist on a very famous story. The subtitle gives it away: "How the Three Kings Teamed Up to Deliver the World's Very First Christmas Presents." B or B combines a familiar Christmas narrative with a winking children's theatre sensibility (the three kings have to learn how to get along and cooperate before they can reach Baby Jesus) and spices both up with lots of action sequences.
The play is narrated by Lemuel, a shepherd who happens to befriend one of the kings and thus winds up being present at some pretty spectacular events. Lemuel is played with a sweet earnestness by Douglas MacKrell, setting a playful, kind, and ever-so-slightly ironic tone for the proceedings. Lemuel's faithful companion is a sheep, played by an uncredited but absolutely fetching stuffed toy; MacKrell animates the sheep delightfully, making the animal the show-stopping star of the show.
Speaking of stars, there's a big gold one hanging over the set throughout Bethlehem or Bust. This star has earned the attention of evil King Herod, who knows that it portends the birth of a king who may come to overpower him someday. Herod therefore wants to kidnap the infant, and to that end, he's enlisted three wise kings—Balthasar, a great inventor; Melchior, a brilliantly intuitive navigator; and Caspar, a super-intellectual wordsmith—to follow the star, find the baby, and deliver him to Herod. Lewonczyk depicts the three kings as quirky and childlike, much in need of the lessons they are about to learn on their journey, though adept in their own ways at their own specialties.
The kings agree to do Herod's bidding and then set off to find the child. Along the way, they encounter a variety of beasts and obstacles not mentioned in any version of the story of Jesus's birth that I've ever seen—Roman soldiers, a band of idiotic thieves, and a gryphon among them—with their inability to get along with one another proving to be the biggest barrier of all to their success.
I don't think I am spoiling anything by telling you that all works out well, with the kings delivering their presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Baby Jesus and then leading him and Mary and Joseph out of Herod's clutches into Egypt.
The fun, of course, is getting there; Lewonczyk and his director, Hope Cartelli, and his excellent cast ensure that this is so. The script is witty, the pace is quick, the mood is lighthearted and irreverent, and the action sequences are charming in their conception and variety—for example, the bandits are depicted as a Moe, Larry, and Curly of two thousand years ago, right down to the eye gouges, nose twists, and miscellaneous pokes and prods that make this particular sequence pretty hilarious (choreography of the fights is by Adam Swiderski and Alexis Black).
Designers Abernathy Bland and Katrina Frances Lewonczyk (production design), Julianne Kroboth (costumes), and Ian W. Hill (lighting) give the piece a school pageant-ish look. And the actors seem to be having a grand time overplaying their silly roles, especially playwright Lewonczyk himself as a mean-mean-meanie of a King Herod and Timothy McCown Reynolds as the silliest king, Balthasar (he shines particularly in the sequence when the trio jumps the wall to enter Bethlehem).
The show is a lot of fun, perfect for adults and probably for kids as well—though I'd suggest chatting with the youngsters afterward about the real message of Christmas, which is not just about getting presents and certainly not about fighting duels and battles to achieve your goals!