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VOL. 126 | NO. 241 | Monday, December 12, 2011

Play Puts Christmas Twist on Aesop

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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Call it variations on a theme. A new play by a local playwright at Circuit Playhouse blends the lessons of childhood, humor and Christmas stories into a collection of seasonal fables.

“Aesop’s Fable-ous Christmas Tree,” a new play by Michael Gravois, blends the familiar lessons of childhood with the tales of the holiday season. It runs through Dec. 18 at Circuit Playhouse. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Gravois)

Its author, Michael Gravois, learned along the way that when opportunity knocks, the early bird gets the worm.

“Aesop’s Fable-ous Christmas Tree” is open at Circuit for 2 p.m. performances on Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 18.

“It’s like a Pixar movie where kids appreciate it, but adults appreciate it too,” said Gravois, a resident company member at Playhouse on the Square and an adjunct professor of theater at the University of Memphis. “We all know Aesop’s fables or stories that have lessons or idiomatic expressions. When I was writing this I brainstormed a list of stories or expressions that I learned growing up and refashioned them into Christmas stories.”

Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller often referenced by the writings of Aristotle and Herodotus, who is credited with coming up such moralistic tales as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Elephant and the Mouse,” or in this case, “The Abominable Snowman and the Snow Mouse.”

“This blended my love of theater with my love of children, with my love of education, because Aesop’s fables and stories that teach,” Gravois said.

In the play, an ensemble cast of eight elves open 12 Christmas presents underneath their tree. Each contains an ornament that sparks a different story.

The elves then act out each fable using a variety of costumes, poetry, puppets and instruments, and finally hang the ornament on the tree.

In “The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts,” for example, the elves perform with rhythm and percussion instruments a la the hit Broadway touring show “Stomp” to demonstrate how they can create something big that none could do by themselves.

Another fable “Wealth Unused,” was fairly easy to match up with the story of Dickens’ reformed Christmas miser, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Gravois said he can remember hearing some of these stories on a record his father bought him one time when he was sick as a child.

He started laying out the structure of the play two years ago during long road trips across Europe while he was adjudicating theater performances in Italy and Belgium.

It’s Gravois’ first play, though he’s written 21 educational books, and he knew going into it that original plays by new playwrights often face a tough market. But then he thought he might have found a niche.

“So often theaters are looking for a different Christmas play and that certainly influenced why I wrote it,” he said. “There are standbys that have stood the test of time like ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.’ I wanted to write a play that theaters around the country are going to want to do.”

In its first production, Gravois, who also directed the show, got a chance to workshop the play, and some changes from his original vision were brought about through the creativity of his cast. For example, originally the show had a cast of 10.

Also, Gravois hoped to cast it with children but had to go with adult actors since the show will tour schools for daytime performances during the week.

The original score of transitional music was written by fellow company members Renee Kemper and David Shipley.

The cast is comprised of Davis Fancher, Jason Gerhard, Marc Gill, Lyric Peters Malkin, Daniel Martin, Justin G. Nelson, Carole Presley and Lena Wallace.

“So often you’re told don’t direct your own play because everything is too precious to you,” Gravois said. “And you want to see if your words are interpretable by someone else. It’s like writing a book without an editor. But it was very clear in my head and I think I translated to stage. I gave everyone in my cast and crew permission to put their own spin on it.”

Tickets for “Aesop’s Fable-ous Christmas Tree” can be purchased by calling 726-4656 or by visiting www.playhouseonthesquare.org.

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