Ever ready to accept free tickets, I jumped at the offer by Enlightened Theatics' Carlos Barata to see their current Plaid Tidings production gratis in exchange for a blog post review.
In case you're wondering whether what I'll say here is colored by the hue of those two $25 tickets, I reply:
"Of course it is! I will add in one extra laudatory adjective beyond what I would have written otherwise, because I want to assure other entertainment enterprises in Salem that, yes, my blogging can be bought in exchange for free tickets. However, you won't get much in return, since the First Rule for Bloggers is be true to yourself and speak from the heart."
If that platitude sounds corny, such is fitting, because Plaid Tidings arguably is a corny show.
Four guy singers dressed in plaid sport coats return from the dead, having met their demise in 1964 after crashing into a bus filled with teenagers on their way to a Beatles concert (the teenagers survived; they didn't).
The first person I asked to accompany me to last night's show at the Grand Theatre demurred, using the corny excuse. Well, that person's loss turned into another person's gain, since the friend who went with me loved Plaid Tidings, just as I did.
As was the case with every Enlightened Theatrics production I've seen, Plaid Tidings honors their tagline, "Broadway to Salem." The four New York performers are professionals in every way: singing, acting, dancing. The onstage bass player and pianist played marvelously; the lighting and set design was top notch; the theatre's sound system is a delight.
So it's easy for me to say, nearly completely truthfully, get tickets to Plaid Tidings pronto, because the last show is December 11, and you don't want to miss this fun, humorous, uplifting, entertaining, delightful show.
(One of those adjectives was bought and paid for by my free tickets, so now we're into totally truthful blog post territory.)
I want to address the misapprehension that other people similar to me -- atheist, progressive, lover of edgy raunchy humor à la Amy Schumer -- may have about seeing a Christmas show with seemingly zero political, cultural, or philosophical significance.
Plus, Plaid Tidings is filled with renditions of songs that, in other circumstances, curdle my Traditional Holidays-phobic mind. Such as, "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas," Jingle Bells," "Joy to the World," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer."
So I readily admit that before Carlos' free ticket offer entered my inbox, seeing Plaid Tidings was way down on my list of must-do's. I wasn't as fearful of corniness as the person who declined to accompany me, but my dislike of how Americans usually celebrate Christmas caused me to be wary of Plaid Tidings.
Had the oh-so-cool Enlightened Theatrics folks sold out to mass-market tastes? Was this a production aimed at the people who enjoy hearing Christmas songs in stores the day after Thanksgiving, and even smilingly hum along with them?
After seeing Plaid Tidings, and having pondered its philosophical significance during a lengthy dog walk this afternoon, I want to assure fellow Christmas-skeptics that despite any misgivings you may have about this production, it is well worth your while to go see it.
(1) Meaninglessness is meaningful. Especially post-presidential election. The Director's Note by Charlie Johnson in the Plaid Tidings program captured this point well.
As I understand it, there are two types of theatre. One that asks the big questions and challenges your world view and another that provides escape and light-hearted fun. Prior to this experience, I had always believed the former to be a loftier and nobler pursuit. I didn't find as much value in a show written solely to entertain and distract.
But I've got to tell you -- after working on PLAID TIDINGS (a show written solely to entertain and distract) I have changed my mind.
Over the course of rehearsals, I have realized just how necessary shows like PLAID TIDINGS are. We live in a complicated, trying world. Now, more than ever perhaps, we need a dose of escape -- a dose of fun. Lucky for you, that's exactly what you'll get tonight. Prepare yourself for tight harmonies, corny jokes, and a bit of nostalgia.
So while you most likely won't leave the theatre contemplating the meaning of life, you'll hopefully walk out of here a bit more joyful... recharged to be a citizen of the world. Turns out this silly little show is more important than I thought.
Nicely said, Charlie. I was glad to see you embrace "corny" as a descriptor of your show, to own it, to raise it to the top of your flagpole and wave it proudly. (more about this in #2 below)
Also, philosophical types like me have no problem contemplating the meaning of life after seeing Plaid Tidings. The way I see it, spending a fun, light-hearted evening in the Grand Theatre hearing old tunes sung in a fresh fashion reminds us that sometimes the most meaningful thing we can say about life is that searching for profound meanings leads us astray.
It was great to sit in my row F, seat 11 chair last night and just let the sights and sounds of Plaid Tidings wash over me in a refreshing cascade of meaningful meaninglessness.
With all the imagined worries about what might come to be in this age of Donald Trump'ism, I deeply enjoyed immersing myself in the actual what is of the show's songs, dancing, and jokes. Plaid Tidings reminded me that as seriously as we need to take the world at times, it is equally important to balance that heaviness with a lightness of being.
(2) Corny is a relative concept, not absolute. Having grown up in the 1950's and 1960's, I experienced the pre-death years of the Plaid Tidings Four (as noted above, they died in 1964). Along with everybody else at the time, I watched Perry Como and the Ed Sullivan Show; I listened to Peggy Lee, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole; I heard the jokes of Steve Allen and other comedians.
A bit later, we had the early Steve Martin, Laugh-In, Sonny and Cher. What we found funny back then, many would dismiss as "corny" now.
But if this is true, won't the same apply to our modern culture a few decades hence? Won't young people in 2050 look at clips of Amy Schumer, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Beyonce, and other entertainers of our day and think, Geez, they're so unbelievably corny!
Lastly, watching Plaid Tidings made me recall how the late 1950's and the beginning of the 1960's was just as light-heartedly frothy as the show reflects, yet also as seriously scarily substantial as the times are today.
I was one of the editors of my central California 8th grade "newspaper," published via mimeograph. My best friend and I queried our classmates in a Hines/Hart poll about whether they thought there would be a nuclear war soon. Most of us said, "Yes."
We'd spent years ducking and covering under our desks. We'd lived through aboveground nuclear tests in neighboring Nevada that caused periodic milk alerts when radiation levels got too high in cow pastures. We'd experienced the extreme Cold War tensions between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. with countless warheads pointed at each other. We'd heard about the need for every home to have some sort of bomb shelter with enough supplies to wait out the first weeks of a nuclear conflict.
I thought about all this, not during last night's Plaid Tidings performance of happy tunes I remembered from the 50's and 60's, but later -- when I began thinking about the cultural anxiety and fear that co-existed with the jokes and songs.
Just like today.
We still live in a yin and yang world. Good and bad, happiness and sadness, joy and suffering, relaxation and worrying, meaning and meaninglessness -- all this continues to co-exist in 2016 just as it did in 1962 (all of us who lived through the scariness of the Cuban missile crisis will remember it both as the year of the Beatles' first single, and the year when we really thought we might die).
So, yeah, let's enjoy the here-and-now fun of Plaid Tidings while also facing the reality that we still live in a dangerous world filled with injustice, inequity, discrimination, greed, and willful ignorance. If we wait to be happy until the world is perfect, we'll wait forever.
At the beginning of Plaid Tidings, one of the four singers who have returned to Earth says something like, "Our purpose is to figure out our purpose; we've got to put on the show that we didn't prepare."
Words as true today as they were back in the day -- no matter when that day was.